Scientists Report One of the Worst Coral Bleaching Events on Record in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean

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The Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies said in press release yesterday (Worst coral death strikes at SE Asia, 19 October 2010) that "[m]any reefs are dead or dying across the Indian Ocean and into the Coral Triangle following a bleaching event that extends from the Seychelles in the west to Sulawesi and the Philippines in the east and include reefs in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and many sites in western and eastern Indonesia." 

“It is certainly the worst coral die-off we have seen since 1998.  It may prove to be the worst such event known to science,” says Dr Andrew Baird of the ARC Centre.

The Coral Triangle -- bordered by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines -- is one of WWF's priority areas.  It covers just one percent of the Earth’s surface, but is home to fully 30 percent of the world’s coral reefs, 76 percent of reef-building coral species and more than 35 percent of coral reef fish species. It also serves as vital spawning grounds for other economically important fish such as tuna.   

Coral Bleaching HotSpots, 18 Oct 2010. Source: NOAA

Above: Coral Bleaching HotSpots, 18 October 2010.  The Coral Triangle is in the lower left hand area.  According to NOAA, the map "highlights regions where the SST is currently warmer than the highest climatological monthly mean SST for that location. The HotSpot value of 1.0 °C is a threshold for thermal stress leading to coral bleaching. To highlight this threshold, HotSpot values below 1.0 °C are shown in purple, and HotSpots of 1.0 °C or greater range from yellow to red."  Source: NOAA's Coral Hotspots Web site.

“This widespread bleaching is alarming because it directly affects the health of our oceans and their ability to nurture fish stocks and other marine resources on which millions of people depend for food and income” said Richard Leck, Climate Change Strategy Leader of the WWF Coral Triangle Programme, in a press release from WWF International on 29 July (Mass coral bleaching closes dive sites, threatens future of world’s most diverse marine region).

“So far around 80 percent of Acropora colonies and 50 per cent of colonies from other species have died since the outbreak began in May this year,”says ARC's Dr Baird.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), global sea surface temperatures (SSTs) from January through September were at their 2nd highest on record -- behind only 2005.  An El Nino was in place in the Tropical Pacific earlier this year and contributed to the warmer global average SSTs.  However, the El Nino dissipated in May and by July a La Nina -- characterized by cooler surface waters --  was developing across the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean.  By September the La Nina was well established, though global SSTs still were the 9th warmest on record.  Of the eight warmer Septembers, all but one (in 1997) were during the last decade.

According to the ARC press release:

"[C]oral cover in the region could drop from an average of 50% to around 10%, and the spatial scale of the event could mean it will take years to recover, striking at local fishing and regional tourism industries, he says.

`Although the Coral Triangle is the richest region for corals on Earth, it relies on other regions around its fringes to supply the coral spawn and fish larvae that help keep it so rich,” Dr Baird explains. “So there are both direct and indirect effects on CT reefs which will affect their ability to recover from future disturbance.'

`Also the reefs of the region support tens of millions of people who make their living from the sea and so plays a vital role in both the regional economy and political stability. For example, in Aceh, northern Sumatra, where the bleaching is most severe, a high proportion of the people rely on fishing and tourism for their livelihoods. While it may take up to two years for some fish species to be affected by the loss of coral habitat, fisheries yields will decline and this combined with a drop in the number of SCUBA divers visiting could have major long-term effects on the local economy.'

The cause of the bleaching event was a large pool of super-hot water which swept into the eastern Indian Ocean region several months ago, shocking the corals and causing them to shed the symbiotic algae that nourish them, thereby losing color and `bleaching.'  If the corals do not regain their algae they starve to death.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Hotspots website, sea surface temperatures in the region peaked in late May, 2010, and by July the accumulated heat stress was greater than in 1998. Local dive operators recorded water temperatures of 34 C, over 4 degrees higher that than long term average for the area.

The event was first detected on reefs in Aceh by marine ecologists from Wildlife Conservation Society, CoECRS and Syiah Kuala University.  They already rate it  as one of the worst coral diebacks ever recorded.

`My colleagues and I have high confidence these successive ocean warming episodes, which exceed the normal tolerance range of warm-water corals, are driven by human-induced global warming. They underline that the planet is already taking heavy hits from climate change – and will continue to do so unless we can reduce carbon emissions very quickly.

`They also show this is not just about warmer temperatures: it is also threatening the livelihoods of tens of millions of people and potentially the stability of our region.'"

WWF Report Assesses Threats and Provides Solutions

In May 2009, WWF released a report, The Coral Triangle and Climate Change: Ecosystems, People and Societies at Risk, on the threat posed by climate change to the Coral Triangle. “This area is the planet’s crown jewel of coral diversity and we are watching it disappear before our eyes,” said Catherine Plume, Director of the Coral Triangle Program for WWF-US, when the report was released. “But as this study shows, there are opportunities to prevent this tragedy while sustaining the livelihoods of millions who rely on its riches.”

The report describes in stark terms the consequences of allowing the continued rapid increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and of not addressing other threats. 

“In one scenario, we continue along our current climate trajectory and do little to protect coastal environments from the onslaught of local threats,” said Queensland University Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, who led the study. “In this world, people see the biological treasures of the Coral Triangle destroyed over the course of the century by rapid increases in ocean temperature, acidity and sea level, while the resilience of coastal environments also deteriorates under faltering coastal management. Poverty increases, food security plummets, economies suffer and coastal people migrate increasingly to urban areas.”

But there are alternatives to that future.  People around the planet can aggressively curb greenhouse gas emissions, and in the Coral Triangle investments can be made in strengthening the region’s natural environments, solutions that would help to build a resilient and robust Coral Triangle in which economic growth, food security and natural environments are maintained.

“Climate change in the Coral Triangle is challenging but manageable, and the region would respond well to reductions in local environmental stresses from overfishing, pollution, and declining coastal water quality and health,”  Hoegh-Guldberg said.

Even under the best case scenario however, communities  in the region can expect to experience  dramatic losses of coral, rising sea levels, increased storm activity, severe droughts and reduced food availability from coastal fisheries. But effective management of coastal resources would mean the communities would be less vulnerable and better able to adapt in the face of such hardships.

Online Resources

Worst coral death strikes at SE Asia .  Press release (19 October 2010) from The Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Australian Research Council).  Includes a Coral Triangle Initiative. 

Coral bleaching event 'worst since 1998'.  ABC News, 19 October 2010.

WWF:

NOAA:

Reef Manager's Guide To Coral Bleaching

Climate Change and Coral Reefs: Consequences of Inaction [PDF]. By the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and International Coral Reef Initiative. November 2009

Coral Reefs Under Rapid Climate Change and Ocean Acidification. By O. Hoegh-Guldberg et al.Science 14 December 2007: Vol. 318. no. 5857, pp. 1737 – 1742

Scripps-Led Studies on Coral Bleaching Show Ocean Health Plays Vital Role in Coral Reef Recovery. Press release (20 August 2009) from Scripps Institution of Oceanography.  

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