Heat-driven coral bleaching continues to take a toll
A new survey of the Great Barrier Reef shows that an ocean heat wave that peaked last March killed up to 95 percent of corals in some parts of the northern reef. And in the aftermath of the worst coral-bleaching event on record, predatory snails are now taking on toll on the remaining corals.
According to the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, researchers recently returned to 83 reefs they surveyed at the height of the bleaching event.
“Millions of corals in the north of the Great Barrier Reef died quickly from heat stress in March and since then, many more have died more slowly,” said Dr. Greg Torda whose team recently returned from re-surveying reefs near Lizard Island.
“Six months after the peak bleaching, the corals now have either regained their algal symbionts and survived, or they have slowly starved to death without the nutrition the algae provide to them,” said Torda. “On the reefs we surveyed close to Lizard Island, the amount of live coral covering the reef has fallen from around 40 percent in March, to under 5 percent now.
“In March, we measured a lot of heavily bleached branching corals that were still alive, but we didn’t see many survivors this week,” says Dr Andrew Hoey, who is currently working from the Lizard Island Research Station. “On top of that, snails that eat live coral are congregating on the survivors, and the weakened corals are more prone to disease. A lot of the survivors are in poor shape.”
Reefs in the southern half of the reef were only lightly bleached and remain in good condition.
“As we expected from the geographic pattern of bleaching, the reefs further south are in much better shape,” says Professor Andrew Baird who led the re-surveys of reefs in the central section of the Great Barrier Reef. “There is still close to 40 percent coral cover at most reefs in the central Great Barrier Reef, and the corals that were moderately bleached last summer have nearly all regained their normal colour.”
The final death toll from the bleaching in the north will not be known until all surveys are completed in mid-November, but it is already clear that this event was much more severe than the two previous bleachings in 2002 and 1998.