Australia’s UNESCO World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef is facing one of the most widespread coral bleaching events on record, as water temperatures in the Coral Sea spike.
“We’ve been at stressful sea surface temperature levels for some time,” Dr William Skirving, a senior scientist with the United States National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coral Reef Watch project told ABC News.
“The vast majority of reefs along the GBR will have some bleaching by now,” wrote Dr Skirving in a briefing note sent to top scientists.
ABC News reports he said forecasts indicated the bleaching would become more intense.
“Over the next few weeks, most of the reef will move to a level that we would expect significant bleaching,” said Dr Skirving.
“And by that, I mean the sensitive corals would have all pretty well turned white. Most of the hardy corals would still be looking OK.”
Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg from the ARC Centre for Excellence in Coral Reef Studies told ABC News his colleagues on Heron Island, in the south of the marine park, had already witnessed extensive bleaching.
“Our team working on the reef crest have noticed that now there’s very significant bleaching. Hectares of coral reef have turned white,” he said.
He said Heron Island only suffered at most two per cent bleaching in 2016 and 2017.
“We’re now seeing up to 100 per cent of corals being bleached,” he said.
However, Professor Hoegh-Guldberg stressed bleaching did not necessarily mean the coral had died, and in fact it may recover.
Speaking from Heron Island, marine biologist Aaron Chai said what concerned him most about the latest bleaching event was that it had not occurred during an El Nino year, which normally brought warmer water.
“This means that we are well and truly experiencing the effects of anthropogenic climate change.”
The CEO of Tourism Tropical North Queensland, Mark Olsen, said his operators were not reporting big impacts, yet.
“We are seeing some heat stress on some of the visited reefs, what’s called ghosting, and there are some small patches of bleaching on our more remote groups but we are not seeing widespread bleaching on the reefs that our visitors go to every day,” he said.
Professor Hoegh-Guldberg agreed.
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