A reef encounter: Life and death after Great Barrier Reef bleaching

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Researcher Grace Frank completes bleaching survey at the Great Barrier Reef (Pic credit: ARC Centre of Excellence)

Researcher Grace Frank completes bleaching survey at the Great Barrier Reef
(Pic credit: ARC Centre of Excellence)

Scientists have confirmed the largest die-off of corals ever recorded on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

The worst affected area, a 700 km swath of reefs in the northern region of the Great Barrier Reef has lost an average of 67 per cent of its shallow-water corals in the past eight to nine.

Further south, over the vast central and southern regions of the Great Barrier Reef, the scientists were relieved to find a much lower death toll.

Professor Terry Hughes, Director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies based at James Cook University, who undertook extensive aerial surveys at the height of the bleaching, said: “Most of the losses in 2016 have occurred in the northern, most-pristine part of the Great Barrier Reef. This region escaped with minor damage in two earlier bleaching events in 1998 and 2002, but this time around it has been badly affected.”

Professor Andrew Baird, also from the ARC Centre, who led teams of divers to re-survey the reefs in October and November, attempted to be more optimistic.

He said: “The good news is the southern two-thirds of the Reef has escaped with minor damage. On average, six per cent of bleached corals died in the central region in 2016, and only one per cent in the south. The corals have now regained their vibrant colour, and these reefs are in good condition.”

Another silver lining was revealed in the northern offshore corner of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, where the loss of coral was lower than the other northern reefs.

A large corridor of reefs had escaped the most severe damage along the eastern edge of the continental shelf in the far north of the Great Barrier Reef.

These reefs are partially protected from heat stress by upwelling of cooler water from the Coral Sea.

Scientists expect that the northern region will take at least 10-15 years to regain the lost corals, but they are concerned that a fourth bleaching event could happen sooner and interrupt the slow recovery.

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