Giant Coral Reef That ‘Died’ In 2003 Teeming With Life Again

coral_reefIn 2003, researchers declared Coral Castles dead. Then in 2015, a team of marine biologists was stunned and overjoyed to find the giant coral reef once again teeming with life. But the rebound came with a big question: Could the enormous and presumably still fragile coral survive what would be the hottest year on record? This month, the Massachusetts-based research team finished a new exploration of the reefs in the secluded Phoenix Islands, a tiny Pacific archipelago, and were thrilled by what they saw. When they splashed out of an inflatable dinghy to examine Coral Castles closely, they were greeted with a vista of bright greens and purples — unmistakable signs of life. –Karen Weintraub, The New York Times, 15 August 2016

In 1998, a heatwave, which raised ocean temperatures, had caused corals worldwide to go a deathly white – a process called bleaching – and die. The single bleaching event of 1998 killed nearly 16% of the world’s corals. When Dr Peter Mumby had visited Tivaru on the Rangiroa lagoon six months later, he’d found a vast majority of the region’s prolific Porites coral, normally the hardiest of coral species, had followed suit. Based on the known growing rates for the species, Mumby predicted it would take the Porites nearly 100 years to recover, not 15. “Our projections were completely wrong,” he says. “Sometimes it is really nice to be proven wrong as a scientist, and this was a perfect example of that.” –Jane Palmer, BBC, 6 September 2014

With ocean temperatures expected to increase an additional 1 to 2 degrees Celsius over the next century, scientists estimate such disasters to become more frequent. Eventually, they predict the majority of the world’s corals will bleach and die. But some corals aren’t complying with their death sentence. The 1998 heatwave also bleached and killed corals on the outer exposed reefs of Palau in the western Pacific Ocean. But by 2005 they’d made a full recovery. “We are learning rapidly about coral reefs that there is a lot that we didn’t know,” Gilmour says. –Jane Palmer, BBC, 6 September 2014

Within the past week, the United State government’s Climate Prediction Center said there was a 55% to 60% chance of a La Nina weather pattern developing in the second half of the year. What would the effects of La Nina be globally? The surge in global temperatures, driven by climate change and a strong El Nino, could begin to slow under a La Nina pattern, Santoso said, but not completely and not until next year. “When we have an El Nino it’s going to rise (and) if it’s La Nina the rise will be weaker … but given the background warming has been accelerating we will still see an increase in temperature but it won’t be as rapid as what we’re seeing in 2015,” he said. “Next year I would expect the rise to be subdued, but still rising.” —CNN, 17 August 2016

“Next year is probably going to be cooler than 2016,” said Phil Jones of the Climatic Research Unit at Britain’s University of East Anglia. He added there was no sign of a strong La Nina, El Nino’s opposite that can cool the planet. “If 2017 is cooler, there will probably be some climate skeptics surfing on this information,” said Jean-Noel Thepaut, head of the Copernicus Climate Change Service at the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. “One thing that the scientific community needs to be careful about is that they are not gearing up for a new ‘hiatus’ event,” said Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate and Energy Research in Oslo. –Alister Doyle, Reuters, 17 August 2016

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    Good article. I would add that changes to, and the subsequent recovery of coral reef complexes from natural geologically induced ocean warming was the subject of several previous Climate Change Dispatch articles; “How Coral Reefs Recover from Geologically induced Deep Ocean Forest Fires”, “Super-Strong El Niño’s are Nature’s Underwater Forest Fires”. Geologist Charles Darwin understood this process. He termed it “Natural Selection” and envisioned it to be an important, and in fact necessary means of culling out weak species, spreading new species, and maintaining the strength of biological communities. Coral Bleaching is not a four letter word, and the recovery process of coral reef communities from both the 1998 and 2016 El Niño’s is doing just fine without our interference.


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