Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is an ecosystem that can be seen from space. It has now suffered its 6th mass coral bleaching event since 1998. Previous events happened in 1998, 2002, 2006, 2016, and 2017. This latest bleaching has occurred even though this is a La Niña year, when more rain and cooler temperatures are supposed to help protect delicate corals.
An aerial survey of 750 separate reefs across much of the 1500 mile-long Great Barrier Reef system found severe bleaching among 60% of the corals. The bleaching covers an area even wider than the back-to-back outbreaks in 2016 and 2017.
The bleaching is a product of a summer in Australia that started early. December temperatures were already warmer than the historical February summer maximums. Globally, 2021 was the hottest year on record for the world’s oceans for the sixth year in a row.
Bleached coral can recover if temperatures cool down for a long enough period, but this is becoming increasingly rare. Between 2009 and 2019, 14% of the world’s coral reefs were lost for good.
In Australia, the plight of the Great Barrier Reef has become politicized. The current government is not supportive of efforts to reduce the country’s fossil fuel dependence and has worked to keep the reef from being placed on the list of endangered world heritage sites. Instead of pushing for emissions cuts, Australia has focused on a variety of long-shot projects aimed at helping the reef.
The fact is that coral reefs cannot cope with the current rate of warming and unless that slows down soon, they will simply not survive for long.
Photo, posted September 28, 2009, courtesy of Matt Kieffer via Flickr.