Global warming, El Niño combine for double whammy
Coral reefs around the world are getting hit by the double whammy of global warming and an intense El Niño this year. Record and near-record warmth spread across large parts of the world’s major oceans are prolonging the longest global coral die-off on record.
“We’re maybe looking at a 2- to 2.5-year-long event. Some areas have already seen bleaching two years in a row,” said Mark Eakin, a biological oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in College Park, Maryland, and coordinator of the agency’s Coral Reef Watch.
When corals are stressed by conditions such as high temperatures, they expel the symbiotic algae that live in their tissues. Without the algae, corals lose a significant source of food and are more vulnerable to disease. In a severe bleaching event, large swaths of reef-building corals die. This causes reefs to erode, destroying fish habitat and exposing previously protected shorelines to the destructive force of ocean waves.
The first documented mass bleaching occurred during the 1982-83 El Niño. A global bleaching event was then confirmed in 1998 during a strong El Niño that was followed by a very strong La Niña, which brings warmer waters to places like Palau and Micronesia. A second global bleaching event occurred in 2010, during a less powerful El Niño.
Scientists first observed the current global coral bleaching event beginning in mid-2014 when bleaching began in the western Pacific Ocean. In October 2015, as the current El Niño was still strengthening, NOAA scientists declared the third global bleaching event on record was underway.
The length of the event means corals in some parts of the world have no time to recover before they are hit by another bleaching event, Eakin said. The current global bleaching event is hammering some reefs repeatedly. Reefs bleached in 2015 in the Caribbean and Florida Keys, for instance, have just started to recover, but may start bleaching all over again as early as July, according to Eakin. In the Pacific, reports are just coming in that corals in Fiji’s nearshore waters are bleaching with lots of dead coral.
“This is now two years in a row for Fiji and it’s looking like 2016 may be worse than 2015,” Eakin said.
The rate of return of bleaching events has been faster than some reefs can recover, he explained. In 1998 in Southeast Asia, for example, there was a severe bleaching event, followed by twelve years of recovery that allowed some of the more rapid-growing, branching corals to grow back.
However, the slower-growing corals that build the backbone of reefs did not recover. In 2010, the same area was hit again by a global bleaching event, killing off newly-grown branching corals and many of the surviving massive corals. These reefs may see bleaching again later this year, Eakin said.
“That was only six years ago,” he said. “We’re seeing global bleaching again now. The frequency of mass bleaching events are going up because of global warming. We are hitting the corals, then we are hitting them again, and then again.