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ARC conducted an aerial and underwater survey of the reef which concluded that two-thirds of it has been hit by mass coral bleaching for second time in 12 months. Photo credit: Ed Roberts / ARC

Warming oceans have caused a large bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef for the second year in a row, new aerial surveys show.

This year's bleaching extends much further south than areas impacted by the 2016 event and two thirds of the reef's corals have now been impacted by bleaching.

Reef scientists worry that the "shocking" back-to-back bleaching gives the reef little chance to recover and that increasing frequency of bleaching events could be ultimately devastating. Scientists recorded previous bleaching events at the Great Barrier Reef in 1998 and 2002.

"The significance of bleaching this year is that it's back to back, so there's been zero time for recovery," Professor Terry Hughes, who led the surveys, told the Guardian. "It's too early yet to tell what the full death toll will be from this year's bleaching, but clearly it will extend 500km south of last year's bleaching."

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

Jon Brodie, a water quality expert, told the Guardian the reef was now in a "terminal stage."

"We've given up. It's been my life managing water quality, we've failed," Brodie said. "Even though we've spent a lot of money, we've had no success."

News: Washington Post, CNN, The Guardian, Mashable, BBC, Buzzfeed

Video: Washington Post, The Guardian

Commentary: The Guardian, David Ritter op-ed, The Guardian, video explainer

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The Great Barrier Reef has been hit by mass bleaching for an unprecedented second year running. Photo credit: Chris Jones / Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

The only hope to save the world's coral reefs is to take immediate action to stop climate change, according to new research published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The study analyzed 2016 bleaching events in the Great Barrier Reef, finding that they were mostly driven by rising temperatures and that local efforts to reduce pollution and overfishing did little to keep the reefs alive. 2016 was the worst year for coral bleaching worldwide, with more than 90 percent of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef affected.

Only nine percent of the reef has avoided bleaching since 1998. "Climate change is not a future threat," the study's lead author, Terry P. Hughes, told the New York Times. "On the Great Barrier Reef, it's been happening for 18 years."

"We didn't expect to see this level of destruction to the Great Barrier Reef for another 30 years," Hughes added.

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By Tim Radford

Some time this century, if humans go on burning fossil fuels at the present rate, severe bleaching will hit 99 percent of coral reefs every year. Coral bleaching happens when the organisms become uncomfortably hot, and reject the algae on which their lives ultimately depend.

Since it takes a reef five years to recover from any one bleaching event, the consequences for some of the world's richest ecosystems could be catastrophic. But catastrophe could be delayed. Drastic cuts in emissions reductions could give reefs an average of another 11 years before they start bleaching every year, according to new research.

Right now, the world's reefs are caught up in the longest global coral bleaching event ever recorded. It began in 2014, and could go on well into 2017, according to the journal Scientific Reports.

Corals are acutely sensitive to ocean temperatures and when the thermometer rises, their symbiotic relationship with a mutual beneficiary, the zooxanthellae, breaks down. Some 90 percent of the Great Barrier Reef off Australia has been affected by the latest episode, and 20 percent of the coral killed.

"Bleaching that takes place every year will invariably cause major changes in the ecological function of coral reef ecosystems," said Ruben van Hooidonk of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Miami.

"Further, annual bleaching will greatly reduce the capacity of coral reefs to provide goods and services, such as fisheries and coastal protection, to human communities."

Acid Trend

The warning supports earlier studies that have already predicted problems for the world's reefs by the century's end. The reefs are being hit by changes in ocean chemistry, as carbon dioxide levels rise and as waters become more acidic.

Changing conditions make reefs vulnerable to new predators. And biologists have warned, again and again, that reefs are home to around a quarter of all marine life, and worth an estimated $375bn a year to humans, as coastal protection, as fishery nurseries, and as a source of tourism.

And even if corals recover from bleaching, and pollution, they could still be vulnerable to drowning as sea levels rise. A new study in the journal Global and Planetary Change has identified a crisis at the Great Barrier Reef 125,000 years ago, when polar ice melted, sea levels rose by perhaps six metres, and the reef's corals all but perished.

"The findings highlight the importance of increasing the reef's resilience now," said Belinda Dechnik of the University of Sydney, who led the research..

"In combination with climate change predictions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and in the absence of improvements to reef management and human impacts, sea level pressures could tip the reef over the edge, potentially drowning it for good."

But the latest computer model predictions revealed in Scientific Reports deliver even more urgency, more global detail and more alarm. There are 87 countries or territories that are home to 500 square kilometers or more of reef .On average, these reefs will start to experience annual bleaching by 2043. This will leave the living corals vulnerable to starvation and disease.

About one reef system in 20 will already be hotter and have started bleaching a decade before that. Among the first will be reefs around Taiwan and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Some 11 percent of reefs will be affected a decade later than average, and these include the corals off Bahrain, Chile and French Polynesia.

If nations adhere to an international agreement made in Paris in December 2015 to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the annual bleaching experience could be delayed by another 11 years.

The low latitude reefs of the South Pacific, India, Florida and the Great Barrier off Australia could be protected for another 25 years. In effect, the research has identified the conservation priorities.

"These predictions are a treasure trove for those who are fighting to protect one of the world's most magnificent and important ecosystems from the ravages of climate change," said Erik Solheim, head of the UN Environment Programme.

"It is imperative that we take these predictions seriously and that, at the very minimum, we meet the targets of the Paris agreement. Doing so will buy time for coral reefs and allow us to plan for the future and adapt to the present."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.

By Mary Hoff

What should we be thinking about when we think about the future of biodiversity, conservation and the environment? An international team of experts in horizon scanning, science communication and conservation recently asked that question as participants in the eighth annual Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity. The answers they came up, just published in the scientific journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution and summarized below, portend both risks and opportunities for species and ecosystems around the world.

"Our aim has been to focus attention and stimulate debate about these subjects, potentially leading to new research foci, policy developments or business innovations," the authors wrote in introducing their list of top trends to watch in 2017. "These responses should help facilitate better-informed forward-planning."

1. Altering Coral Bacteria

Around the world, coral reefs are bleaching and dying as ocean temperatures warm beyond those tolerated by bacteria that live in partnership with the corals. Scientists are eyeing the option of replacing bacteria forced out by heat with other strains more tolerant of the new temperatures—either naturally occurring or genetically engineered. Although the practice holds promise for rescuing or resurrecting damaged reefs, there are concerns about unintended consequences such as introduction of disease or disruption of ecosystems.

2. Underwater Robots Meet Invasive Species

If you think getting rid of invasive species on land is a challenge, you haven't tried doing it in the depths of the ocean. Robots that can crawl across the seafloor dispatching invaders with poisons or electric shock are being investigated as a potential tool for combating such species. The technology is now being tested to control crown-of-thorns starfish, which have devastated Great Barrier Reef corals in recent years and invasive lionfish, which are competing with native species in the Caribbean Sea.

3. Electronic Noses

The technology behind electronic sensors that detect odors has advanced markedly in recent years, leading biologists to ponder applications to conservation. Possibilities include using the devices to sniff out illegally traded wildlife at checkpoints along transportation routes and to detect the presence of DNA from rare species in the environment.

4. Blight of the Bumblebees

We tend to think of pollinating insects as our ecological friends, but in the wrong place nonnative bees can spell trouble instead by competing with native insects, promoting reproduction in nonnative plants and potentially spreading disease. And they're doing just that, thanks to people who transport them internationally for plant-pollination purposes. Out-of-place bumblebees are already spreading through New Zealand, Japan and southern South America, and there is concern they could do the same in Australia, Brazil, Uruguay, China, South Africa and Namibia.

5. Microbes Meet Agriculture

Select bacteria and fungi are emerging as potential agricultural allies for their ability to help kick back pests or stimulate growth in crops. As research advances in this area, questions are being raised about potential implications for nontarget species, ecosystems, soils and more.

Bumblebees imported to pollinate crops are a growing threat to native pollinators around the world. iStock

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By Jeff Masters

The top weather story of 2016: Earth had its warmest year on record (again)! While the final numbers are not officially tabulated, 2016 appears certain to be the warmest year in every major dataset scientists use to track global warmth.

The previous warmest year on record for Earth's surface was set in 2015, which in turn broke the record set in 2014. The three-year string of warmest years on record is the first time such an event has happened since record keeping began in 1880. One official record has already been announced: Earth's warmest year in the 38-year satellite-measured lower atmosphere temperature record was 2016, beating a record had stood since 1998, according to the University of Alabama-Huntsville.

The first seven months of 2016 all set new monthly records for global heat in the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) database, giving the planet an unprecedented streak of 15 consecutive record-warm months. February 2016 had the warmest departure from average of month in recorded history and July 2016 was the warmest month in recorded history in absolute terms.

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), 2016's global temperatures were approximately 1.2 C above pre-industrial levels. About 0.2 C of this warming was due to the strong El Niño event that ended in May 2016 and the remainder was due to the long-term warming of the planet from human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide. Assuming that all nations who agreed to the Paris climate accord in 2015 fulfill their pledges, Earth is on track to see 2.3 C of warming over pre-industrial levels by 2050. This is above the "dangerous" 2 C level of warming considered likely to greatly increase the risk of hunger, thirst, disease, refugees and war.

Figure 1. Departure of the global surface temperature from average for the period January—November, for all years from 1880 to 2016. The year 2016 will easily beat 2015 as the warmest year on record. NOAA

Columbus' ships were leaking, their provisions spoiling. It was clear that they would have to turn back. Yet, anchored off Cuba's southwestern coast near a large, mountainous pine-covered island during his second voyage, Columbus had seen enough. He was convinced Cuba was part of Asia and that return to Spain by land would be possible from the main Cuban island. He ordered each member of the crew sign an affidavit testifying to this, and their signature bound them to have their tongue cut out should they ever contradict their signed statement.

The next day, June 13, 1494, they landed on the nearby island. Columbus named it Evangelista. Over the centuries since, it bore the names Isla de Cotorras (Isle of Parrots), Isla de Tesoros (Treasure Island), Isla de Pinos (Isle of Pines), and finally, Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth). While Cuba claimed its sovereignty from Spain in 1898, the fate of the Isle of Pines would not be settled until more than 25 years when it officially became part of Cuba, though by then most of it was controlled by U.S. interests.

Waves break along Isle of Youth's southern coast.David Guggenheim

The 80,000 residents of the island often feel invisible, forgotten and disconnected from the rest of Cuba, an "island within an island." Dwarfed by the massive main island of Cuba, the world is barely aware of its very existence, despite the fact that it is the seventh largest island in the Caribbean, larger than St. Lucia, Barbados, Grenada, Bonaire, St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. John, Aruba, St. Barts, Saba, Terre-de-Haut, Isla Mujeres and Key West combined. The island has struggled for decades, with limited economic opportunities for its residents, mostly in agriculture and fishing. It has long since been forgotten as an international tourist destination.

Location of the community of Cocodrilo on the southern tip of Cuba's Isle of Youth.

The Cuban government has repeatedly tried to infuse life into the island. In 1978, Fidel Castro changed the name to Isle of Youth as part of an effort to bring new opportunity and meaning to the island. An initiative was launched to build a world-class international network of schools on the island, attracting students from Africa, Asia and beyond. Thirty years later, in 2008, Hurricane Gustav, with sustained winds of 155 mph, decimated the island, laying to waste the international schools and that chapter of the island's struggle.

Students from Florida and Cocodrilo engage in environmental projects during an Ocean Doctor-led exchange.

In 2015, Ocean Doctor led an expedition of Cuban and American scientists to visit the protected waters of the Isle of Youth; most of the southern half of the island is protected, part of Cuba's massive system of protected areas. Over our 16 years of working in Cuba, we have found the country as a beacon of hope, where many coral reef ecosystems thrive in sharp contrast to the dead and dying corals elsewhere in the Caribbean.

It is estimated that 50 percent of the coral cover in the Caribbean has vanished since 1970. As we dove among the coral reefs in the Punta Frances protected area, we indeed found some of Cuba's treasured coral reefs, gleaming and healthy. But we also found reefs in stress—some bleached white, some covered in slimy green algae, the telltale signs of a reef beginning to die.

Our Cuban colleagues were surprised. This was something new that they hadn't seen just two to three years earlier. We saw no sharks, no groupers and virtually no large, predatory fish, a sure sign of overfishing which contributes to a reef's decline. Although on paper the area is protected—it has the same level of protection as Cuba's better-known Gardens of the Queen—there is virtually no enforcement and the area is fished illegally.

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A new map released by the Australian Research Council shows unprecedented coral bleaching in the last nine months in Australia's Great Barrier Reef, resulting in the largest coral die-off ever recorded.

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

About two-thirds of reefs have died in the most-impacted northern region stretching 435 miles and researchers estimate the damage could take up to 15 years to recover. Global warming, combined with a strong El Niño, caused disastrous coral bleaching across the world this year.

Staghorn corals killed by bleaching on the northern Great Barrier Reef.Greg Torda / ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

"Most of the losses in 2016 have occurred in the northern, most-pristine part of the Great Barrier Reef," said Professor Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies based at James Cook University, who undertook extensive aerial surveys at the height of the bleaching. "This region escaped with minor damage in two earlier bleaching events in 1998 and 2002, but this time around it has been badly affected."

Researcher Grace Frank completes bleaching surveys.ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

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By Neela Eyunni

The Earth's oceans are under siege. Human activity is wiping out coral reefs and marine life at a faster rate than ever before. As conservationists try to restore the health of our seas, one place may be key to turning the tide.

The Verde Island Passage has the highest concentration of marine species in the world. Spanning 4,400 square miles, it sits between the province of Batangas and the island of Mindoro in the Philippines. Just more than a decade ago, Prof. Kent Carpenter of the Biological Sciences Department at Old Dominion University labeled the Verde Island Passage "the center of the center" of marine biodiversity.

Hard corals in Anilao, part of the Verde Island Passage. Boogs Rosales

Today, Carpenter sees the passage as a litmus test for global conservation. He said it holds valuable insight into what needs to be done in order to protect the planet's aquatic life.

"Being able to study the Verde Island Passage gives us the opportunity to understand how to preserve global biodiversity," said Carpenter.

In 2005, he and marine scientist Victor Springer recorded 1,736 overlapping marine species in a mere 10-square kilometer area of the passage. Everything from giant clams and hawksbill turtles to unique sea slugs and rare corals call the Verde Island Passage home.

But like many hotspots of marine biodiversity, it too is being threatened by unsustainable fishing and pollution. While dynamite fishing plagued the area in the 1980s and 1990s, the major threat today is overfishing. Carpenter points to the reduction of herbivores in the corridor as a major cause for concern. Herbivorous fish play a key role in ensuring the survival of coal reefs by keeping algae growth in check.

Garbage from coastal communities and ships floating off Tingloy municipality in the province of Batangas, Philippines. Boogs Rosales

Adding to the environmental pressure is the fact that the Verde Island Passage is a major shipping lane, transporting goods and passengers between the Philippine capital of Manila and the rest of the country. Carpenter said that ships traveling through the passage often dump their garbage in the ocean to avoid paying the offloading fee when they arrive in Manila.

With the challenges, however, has come hope, thanks to the Verde Island Passage's resilience and conservationists who are dedicated to protecting it. Robert Suntay is president of the SEA-VIP Institute, a nonprofit organization which promotes conservation in the Verde Island Passage through science, education and advocacy.

The Verde Island Passage is home to a high concentration of shrimp species, including this Coleman Shrimp. Boogs Rosales

"In the more than two decades that I have been diving in the Verde Island Passage, I have seen her suffer from terrible bouts with coral bleaching and algal blooms, and from indiscriminate cyanide and dynamite fishing," Suntay said. "It has also been my privilege to see her recover, seemingly miraculously, with amazing resilience and in record time."

One hypothesis is that the corridor's resilience is because of its extreme biodiversity. Greater diversity means a different species can fill the ecological role of another in case of decline. While it requires further research, the Verde Island Passage's ability to bounce back from destructive human activities makes it an even more valuable tool in the fight to save the planet's seas. Suntay said the passage should be studied by scientists in other parts of the world that are suffering from environmental degradation.

But while the potential is high, so are the stakes.

"This is a winning model that we have shown could work," Carpenter said. "To have it fail would be devastating in terms of what we want to do in conservation."

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