1

People and ecosystems

Understanding of the links between coral reef ecosystems, the goods and services they provide to people, and the wellbeing of human societies.

2

Ecosystem dynamics: past, present and future

Examining the multi-scale dynamics of reefs, from population dynamics to macroevolution

3

Responding to a changing world

Advancing the fundamental understanding of the key processes underpinning reef resilience.

Coral Bleaching

Coral Bleaching

Coral Reef Studies

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au

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The window for saving the world’s coral reefs is rapidly closing

05
Jan 2018

The world’s reefs are under siege from global warming, according to a novel study published today in the prestigious journal Science.

For the first time, an international team of researchers has measured the escalating rate of coral bleaching at locations throughout the tropics over the past four decades. The study documents a dramatic shortening of the gap between pairs of bleaching events, threatening the future existence of these iconic ecosystems and the livelihoods of many millions of people.

“The time between bleaching events at each location has diminished five-fold in the past 3-4 decades, from once every 25-30 years in the early 1980s to an average of just once every six years since 2010,” says lead author Prof Terry Hughes, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE).

“Before the 1980s, mass bleaching of corals was unheard of, even during strong El Niño conditions, but now repeated bouts of regional-scale bleaching and mass mortality of corals has become the new normal around the world as temperatures continue to rise.”

The study establishes a transition from a period before the 1980s when bleaching only occurred locally, to an intermediate stage in the 1980s and 1990s when mass bleaching was first recorded during warmer than average El Niño conditions, and finally to the current era when climate-driven bleaching is now occurring throughout ENSO  (El Niño-Southern Oscillation) cycles.

The researchers show that tropical sea temperatures are warmer today during cooler than average La Niña conditions than they were 40 years ago during El Niño periods.

“Coral bleaching is a stress response caused by exposure of coral reefs to elevated ocean temperatures. When bleaching is severe and prolonged, many of the corals die. It takes at least a decade to replace even the fastest-growing species,” explained co-author Prof Andrew Baird of Coral CoE.

“Reefs have entered a distinctive human-dominated era – the Anthropocene,” said co-author, Dr C. Mark Eakin of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, USA. “The climate has warmed rapidly in the past 50 years, first making El Niños dangerous for corals, and now we’re seeing the emergence of bleaching in every hot summer.”

“For example, the Great Barrier Reef has now bleached four times since 1998, including for the first time during back-to-back events in 2016 and 2017, causing unprecedented damage,” explained Prof Hughes. “Yet the Australian government continues to support fossil fuels.”

“We hope our stark results will help spur on the stronger action needed to reduce greenhouse gases in Australia, the United States and elsewhere,” says Prof Hughes.

The paper “Spatial and temporal patterns of mass bleaching of corals in the Anthropocene” is now available here.

IMAGES

Images must carry credits as listed in Dropbox folder:
https://www.dropbox.com/sh/81s55plybbqz04b/AACuFcDjnP_-Ywid9RXsVdEKa?dl=0

CONTACTS FOR INTERVIEWS

Prof Andrew Baird
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University
Phone: +61 (0) 400 289 770 (currently in Sydney, AEDT/UTC +11)
Email: Andrew.Baird@jcu.edu.au

Associate Professor Julia Baum
University of Victoria, Department of Biology
Victoria, BC CANADA
Phone: 1-250-858-9349 (PST/UTC -8)
Email: baum@uvic.ca

Associate Professor Michael Berumen
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Red Sea Research Center
Thuwal, SAUDI ARABIA
Phone: +966 544 700 019 (available from 3-4 Jan, MSK/UTC + 3; 5-7 Jan, CET/UTC + 1)
Email: michael.berumen@kaust.edu.sa

C. Mark Eakin, Ph. D.
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration
Silver Spring, MD U.S.A.
Phone: 1-301-502-8608  (EST/UTC -5)
Email: mark.eakin@noaa.gov

Prof Nicholas Graham
Lancaster University, Lancaster Environment Centre
Lancaster, UNITED KINGDOM
Tel: +44 (0) 7479 438 914 (available from 4 Jan, GMT/UTC)
Email: nick.graham@lancaster.ac.uk

Prof Terry Hughes
Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
Townsville, QLD AUSTRALIA
Phone: +61 (0) 400 720 164 (NZDT/UTC +13)
Email: Terry.Hughes@jcu.edu.au

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Catherine Naum
Communications Manager
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University
Townsville, QLD AUSTRALIA
Phone: +61 (0)7 4781 6067, +61 (0) 428 785 895 (AEST/UTC +10)
Email: Catherine.Naum1@jcu.edu.au

Aerial survey images from Cape York to Mossman on 25/03/2016, Great Barrier Reef. Credit: ARC CoE for Coral Reef Studies/ Terry Hughes
Aerial survey images from Cape York to Mossman on 25/03/2016, Great Barrier Reef. Credit: ARC CoE for Coral Reef Studies/ Terry Hughes

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Coral Reef Studies

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au