Science

Marine heatwaves a bigger threat to coral reefs than previously thought

Past research has raised alarm about how ocean pollution and rising temperatures cause coral bleaching-which is when coral expels algae, its main food source, and turns white. This discovery fits into this category.

The study revealed that corals became up to 15% weaker after an extreme heat event, causing some fragments to actually break off from the reef.

As per new research carried on by the University of New South Wales (UNSW), the University of Technology Sydney, the University of Newcastle, the US NOAA, and James Cook University, ocean heatwaves due to global warming affect coral reefs worldwide more than scientists expected. The report indicates that the benefits derived by humans from coral reefs "span from coastal protection to subsistence and industrial fisheries", and that these industries depend on the structural integrity of the coral reefs' 3-D structures, which are greatly compromised by ongoing climate change as well as ocean heatwaves.

In 2016 the team's research showed that just a 0.5C increase in ocean temperature changes the extent of mortality that happens in coral during bleaching.

The scientists concluded that severe and frequent marine heatwaves can destroy corals through a processes called "bleaching". [M] arine heatwave events on coral reefs are biologically distinct to how coral bleaching has been understood to date.

"The water temperatures are so warm that the coral animal doesn't bleach - in terms of a loss of its symbiosis - the animal dies and its underlying skeleton is all that remains", she said.

Researchers suggest that "severe heatwave-induced mortality events" should therefore be considered a separate phenomenon to coral bleaching, and one which causes more damage.

The team has also shown that even the skeletons are being eroded by the rapid growth of algae and bacteria, another unexpected product of severe heatwaves.

The researchers also have evidence that the skeleton of corals, also an animal species, begin to decay within weeks of a marine heatwave.

They are the first researchers, as Richardson noted, to document that such events are causing "almost instant mortality of corals".

Commenting on the analysis, Dr James Guest from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, who has been researching coral reef habitats for more than 15 years, said: "It is onerous to know how a lot we've got to keep saying that this is a huge problem before policy-makers resolve to do something about it". The scientists hope that politicians would come up with solutions to tackle climate change and, subsequently, coral reefs' damage. And the death of corals would come with a steep cost for humans: "flood protection that's worth tens of millions in the USA alone, plus an estimated value of nearly $30 billion each year globally in tourism, fishing, and other benefits".



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