Great Barrier Reef Bleaching Threat Reaches “Severe” Level

March 22, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef
Photo credit: WWF Australia/XL Catlin Seaview Survey

The corals are drained of color and fighting for survival.

Dramatic new video and photos of the coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef’s Lizard Island are showing the extensive damage that has prompted the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to raise its response to Level 3 — the highest response level.

The video was shot by the CoralWatch team, led by Professor Justin Marshall from the University of Queensland, and the stills were taken by XL Catlin Seaview Survey — both of which were both released on Sunday (March 21).

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system, and it is home to some of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth. In fact, coral reefs support more species per area than any other marine environment, including 4,000 species of fish, 800 species of coral, and hundreds of other species.

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This biodiversity is believed to be imperative in finding and developing new medicines for the 21st century. Many drugs are developed from coral reef animals and plants as possible cures for cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, and viruses.

Three weeks ago, Lizard Island was suffering the worst bleaching in 15 years, and it has continued to get worse.

“We do notice a bit of minor bleaching most summers, but this year is exceptional,” researcher Lyle Vail told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “Unfortunately we’ve got the perfect storm conditions for coral bleaching. At the moment we’ve got brilliant clear sunny skies, calm conditions, little tidal movement. A lot of that hot water on top of the reef flat is just staying there and cooking the coral.”

Soaring ocean temperatures are to blame for the reef’s bleaching crisis.

“The new video and stills are very concerning and show large sections of coral drained of all color and fighting for survival,” WWF spokesperson Richard Leck said in a statement.

Russell Reichelt, chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, told The Guardian, that corals in the reef’s northern regions, where surface sea temperatures surpassed 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) in February, were “effectively bathed in warm water for months, creating heat stress that they could no longer cope with.”

Bleached coral in the Great Barrier Reef

Photo credit: WWF Australia/XL Catlin Seaview Survey

“We still have many more reefs to survey to gauge the full impact of bleaching, however, unfortunately, the further north we go from Cooktown [in Queensland] the more coral mortality we’re finding,” he said.

Australia’s Environment Minister Greg Hunt announced plans for increased monitoring of the Great Barrier Reef, as well as programs to tackle run-off pollution and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, which prey on coral polyps.

However, Leck said that the increased monitoring, although a positive step, must also address the climate crisis, which is fueled by the burning of fossil fuels — the driver of coral bleaching. “We can turn this around. The Reef can recover but we must speed up the shift to clean, renewable energy and we must build reef resilience by reducing runoff pollution from farms and land clearing.”

SEE ALSO: Rapidly Warming Lakes Threaten Fresh Drinking Water

Not only are coral reefs crucial for marine animal and plant biodiversity, but they also act as shoreline buffers preventing erosion, property damage and loss of life. Globally, half a billion people are estimated to live within 62 miles (100 kilometers) of a coral reef, and they benefit from its production and protection.

Unfortunately, the Great Barrier Reef is not the only reef system threatened by bleaching. The world is in the midst of the longest-ever global coral bleaching event — it began in 2014 and could extend to 2017.

Below is the dramatic video showing some of the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.


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