The Great Barrier Reef may be at a “terminal” point after being hit with unprecedented bleaching events in consecutive years, scientists warned Monday.
According to new aerial surveys conducted by the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, two-thirds of the reef have now been affected, up from one-third last year. This year’s mass bleaching occurred even in the absence of an El Niño event.
Professor Terry Hughes, who led the surveys, told the Guardian, “The significance of bleaching this year is that it’s back to back, so there’s been zero time for recovery.”
“It’s too early yet to tell what the full death toll will be from this year’s bleaching, but clearly it will extend 500km (310 miles) south of last year’s bleaching,” he said.
Australia now faces a rapidly approaching deadline for saving the reef by addressing climate change, Hughes added.
“It takes at least a decade for a full recovery of even the fastest growing corals, so mass bleaching events 12 months apart offers zero prospect of recovery for reefs that were damaged in 2016,” said Dr. James Kerry, who also took part in the surveys.
Bleaching occurs when overly warm ocean waters cause coral to get rid of its internal algae, which turns the coral white and erodes its structures. The loss of structure makes shorelines more vulnerable to extreme weather and destroys natural habitats for marine life.
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