2022 Mass Bleaching Events: An Increasing Occurrence And Devastating Reminder Of The Climate Crisis.

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Coral reefs are a plethora of life and colour. Corals protrude strikingly, or sway gently amongst darting or shoaling fish. Some reefs are up to 10,000 years old and although they only cover about 1% of the sea floor, they protect and house a quarter of all marine species. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), coral reefs support up to 500 million people, through fisheries, tourism and jobs. Coral Bleaching is so concerning, as not only are our reefs priceless to the myriad of wildlife that inhabits them, but if we’re going to put a fiscal figure on it, they’re worth in excess 11.9 trillion dollars per year. From this, we can see that they are instrumental in survival – not just for aquatic life – but for ALL life.

The experts at NOAA estimate that the ocean produces 50-80% of the world’s oxygen and absorbs 50 times more carbon dioxide than the atmosphere, they also estimate that up to 75% of coral reefs have suffered climate change induced heat-stress that is potent enough to prompt bleaching. You may have seen multiple accounts of ‘bleaching’ and associated articles in the mainstream media recently, that’s because the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is in the midst of another devastating bleaching event, right now.

So, what is coral bleaching? Aesthetically, it’s when corals lose their vivid colours and turn white. This happens due to microscopic algae – that the coral tissues have a symbiotic relationship with – being expelled by the coral due to stress; this stress is induced by changes in their environment. This could be temperature changes or changes to light or nutrients, it can be associated with destructive fishing practices, pollution and coastal developments, or a combination of these factors.

If conditions don’t improve, the coral won’t allow the algae back in, and the coral will die. It is estimated that reefs suffering from bleaching may take up to 12 years to recover and that’s only if new stresses – such as weather events or more bleaching – don’t occur in the meantime. In the Great Barrier Reefs case however, these sensitive corals are essentially being cooked.

While coral bleaching is by no means an isolated phenomenon – in Australia, or in general – the reef is thought to be currently suffering its 6th mass bleaching event in the last 7 years, as confirmed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) earlier this month. It is thought that bleaching in 2016 caused nearly 30% of coral to die on the Great Barrier Reef.

This month, government scientists used helicopters and small aircrafts to survey 750 separate reefs across hundreds of miles and unfortunately, discovered severe bleaching in 60% of them. The Great Barrier Reef is the biggest coral reef system in the world, it stretches for 1,429 miles over an area of approximately 133,000 square miles, and this worrying development has understandably attracted media attention. 

The timing of this particular catastrophe is due to coincide with a planned trip by UNESCO representatives to Queensland, to get a mission underway which monitors the reef. Environmental groups say it is imperative that these scientists are given a comprehensive and accurate view of the bleaching, ahead of a World Heritage Committee meeting happening in June.

Previously, the reef narrowly missed out on being given “in danger” status last year. The ‘in danger list’ signals to international communities that the site is in danger of losing key attributes that made it a World Heritage Site to begin with, and that it is not being adequately managed or protected, encouraging governments to take action.

A research briefing released on the 21st of March 2022, by The Climate Council, (a non-profit, leading organisation on climate change in Australia) called: In hot water: Climate change, marine heatwaves and coral bleaching had some pretty damning findings.

They recorded that central areas of the reef are up 3°C, they also found way above average temperatures offshore from Australia this summer, and that marine heatwaves are happening more often and getting more severe, with these heatwaves likely to increase in frequency by up to 50 times by the end of the century. Other concerning observations included near-surface waters off south east Australia warming at close to 4 times the global average, leading to species decline and collapse.

To counteract the doom and gloom: It is projected that even if a fraction of a degree in warming is averted, this will be measured in the ecosystems saved. The Climate Council is urging the Australian government to commit to cutting its emissions by 75% below 2005 levels, with this target being achieved by 2030. The incentive being the benefit reaped by Australia’s oceans, with their naturalistic, social and cultural significance.

In the last three decades, the world has lost half its reefs. This is a damning statistic for the inaction of global powers. Predictions from world renowned scientists are that we could lose over 90% of our coral reefs by 2050. It is said that we have ‘10 years to turn the tide’.

All this is indicative of a true climate emergency and in the case of the Great Barrier Reef, initiatives, investment and action simply can’t wait. A reef management project called the ‘Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan’ or simply ‘Reef 2050’ by The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is positive, but seems to lack the urgency required to counter the problems on display – wonderful contributions by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation with their ‘Reef Recovery 2030’ projects notwithstanding. 

The team at TankBred have been lucky enough to work on and study reefs around the world and any indications of marine ecosystem distress are harrowing to hear. In the not too distant future, we aim to hone sustainable aquaculture procedures that will help tackle species decline associated with events like coral bleaching. In the meantime, we hope the Great Barrier Reef gains more protection and enjoys a more proactive approach from the Australian Government, ahead of what will surely be a revised status for the reef by the World Heritage Committee in June of this year.

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