Corals are severely bleaching five times as often as in 1980

Warming tropical waters are largely responsible, researchers say

coral reef

COLORLESS  Bleaching removes the algae that feed corals and give them their color, turning vibrant reefs barren. Reefs are now experiencing severe bleaching much more frequently than four decades ago.

Kristen Brown/ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

Corals are in hot water.

Severe bleaching events are hitting coral reefs five times as often as in 1980, researchers report in the Jan. 5 Science.

Scientists surveyed 100 coral reef locations in tropical zones around the world, tracking each spot’s fate from 1980 to 2016. At first, only a few of the locations had experienced bleaching. But by 2016, all had been hit by at least one bleaching event, and all but six had suffered a severe event — defined as affecting more than 30 percent of corals in an area.

The median time between pairs of severe bleaching events has also decreased, the researchers found — it’s now just under six years, versus 25 to 30 years in the early 1980s. That’s not enough time for corals to fully bounce back before getting hit again.

Consistently higher tropical water temperatures, the result of climate change, are in part to blame for the increase in bleaching, researchers say. Warm water stresses corals and strips away their symbiotic algae — their main source of food and the reason they’re colorful. Bleaching episodes can be fatal, especially if corals can’t recover between events.  

In the past, major bleaching events were most likely to happen when El Niño brought bands of warmer water to the tropics. But sea surface temperatures in tropical areas are now warmer during today’s La Niña years (when the water is typically cooler) than during El Niño events 40 years ago, says study coauthor Terry Hughes, a coral researcher at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. Because those temperatures continue to rise, “we have a narrowing window of opportunity to save reefs,” he says.

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