Coral Reef Tipping Point: ‘Near-Annual’ Bleaching May Occur Globally, Scientists Say
Tropical coral reefs are at a critical tipping point, and we've pushed them there, scientists say. Climate change may now cause previously rare, devastating coral bleaching events to occur in tropical coral reefs around the globe on a 'near-annual' basis, reported The Guardian.
In February 2020, record-high sea temperatures at Australia's Great Barrier Reef caused the most widespread coral bleaching event at the reef ever, reported NBC News. Unfortunately, this was also the third such major bleaching in five years, raising concerns over the fragile corals' ability to keep rebounding against worsening marine conditions.
To put it into perspective, there have only ever been five recorded bleaching events at the Great Barrier Reef, explained Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council's Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in North Queensland, to NBC News. The first two were in 1998 and 2002, and then there was a 14-year gap before the 2016 and 2017 events. The latter two resulted in the death of almost half of the famed reef's corals in just two years, NBC News reported.
Scientists weren't expecting another bleaching event so soon, explained Mark Eakin, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch program in College Park, Maryland to NBC News. "This has never happened before. We're in completely uncharted territory."
Now, Eakin warns that the accelerating frequency may indicate something far worse. "The real concern is with this much bleaching without tropical forcing," Eakin told The Guardian. "This may be a sign we've now tipped over to near-annual bleaching in many locations."
Historically, tropical coral reefs bleach more often when the Pacific Ocean is in a phase known as El Niño, reported The Guardian. This latest bleaching on the reef has hit during a neutral phase in the cycle.
Eakin told The Guardian, "It's quite concerning that we are getting this much heat stress across the Great Barrier Reef in an Enso [El Niño southern oscillation]-neutral year."
Eakin's agency, Coral Reef Watch, monitors coral reefs across the globe, not just in Australia. Their research led Eakin to additionally conclude that there was a risk that this mass bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef could mark the start of another global-scale event, reported The Guardian.
"If we get another El Niño, the odds are almost 100% that we will see another global bleaching event," Eakin told The Guardian.
"The gap between one event and the next is shrinking, not just for the Great Barrier Reef, but reefs throughout the tropics," Hughes told NBC News. "That's important, because it takes a decade or so for a half-decent recovery of even the fastest-growing corals. The slowest ones take several decades."
Given their long recovery time, Eakin warned The Guardian, "We are seeing these events far too frequently" for reefs to recover from mass mortality of corals due to bleaching.
The news report explained that corals bleach when they sit in abnormally hot water for too long. While corals can recover from mild bleaching, severe and prolonged heat stress can kill corals.
Eakin added, "What we are seeing on the Great Barrier Reef and potentially elsewhere is really being driven just by anthropogenic climate change," reported The Guardian.
Increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere cause the planet to warm, and 90 percent of that extra heat is taken up by oceans, explains the news report. According to CBS News, because corals are extremely sensitive to ocean temperatures, raising the water temperature by even a couple of degrees can still result in mass coral bleaching. And while bleaching does not kill the coral, it weakens them, making them vulnerable to disease, The Guardian explained.
Eakin concluded, "There's so much heat that has been absorbed in the upper ocean that all the coral reefs are much closer now to their bleaching threshold. As result, it's very easy to tip them over," reported The Guardian.
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By Naomi Larsson
For centuries, the delicate silver dove has been a symbol of love and fidelity.
Biodiversity and Habitat Loss<p>Their near extinction is a symbol of the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/global-biodiversity-outlook-targets-extinction-summit-new-york-pledge/a-54932895" target="_blank">biodiversity crisis</a> in the UK, largely driven by habitat destruction. Britain is now one of the countries with the most <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/future-of-UK-nature#:~:text=The%20UK%20is%20one%20of,than%20half%20are%20in%20decline" target="_blank">depleted nature</a> in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund. Half its plant and animal species are in decline and more than <a href="https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/let-nature-sing-wales/#:~:text=a%20natural%20tragedy.-,Over%2040%20million%20birds%20have%20vanished%20from%20UK%20skies%20in,unaware%20of%20the%20impending%20danger" target="_blank">40 million birds</a> have vanished in just half a century.</p><p>"[Turtle doves] are the canary in the [coal] mine because there are all these other species before it and after it," said Tree. "It's an umbrella for all the other species that are heading that way."</p><p>Turtle doves migrate south through Europe to sub-Saharan Africa between July and September, ending up in dry woodland and farmland areas of countries like Mali and Senegal for winter. </p><p>Droughts in West Africa and the Sahel region are believed to have contributed to the fall in turtle dove species recorded in northern Europe, with low rainfall reducing supplies of the seeds and insects the birds rely on for energy for the long journey home.</p>
Conservation and Farming<p><a href="https://www.operationturtledove.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Turtle Dove,</a> a partnership project of charities including the Essex Wildlife trust, works with landowners and farmers to actively build turtle dove habitat.</p><p>Outten works with <a href="https://www.ebws.org.uk/birdsites/blue-house-farm-ewt-north-fambridge" target="_blank">Blue House Farm</a>, a 660-acre nature reserve in the UK county of Essex, where they have replicated weedy fallow plots. </p><p>"We work on it every year to make sure it's in the condition it needs to be with plants such as clovers and black medic," Outten said. "These plants are native to the landscape and produce the seed the birds feed on." </p><p>The birds eat a wide range of seeds from various plants that would have been abundant 50 or 100 years ago, added Guy Anderson, program manager for species recovery with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). </p><p>"But it's simply true that with the gradual process of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/farming-without-pesticides-how-can-we-make-agriculture-greener/a-52216796" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intensifying our agricultural production</a>, the availability of those seeds has dropped and dropped," said Anderson.</p><p>Part of the project includes supplementary feeding — providing sources of food in the form of seed or grain. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, farmers can receive financial support to create a turtle dove habitat. </p><p>Though they haven't recorded an increase in doves across the sites in the four years of working on the project, Outten said they are seeing improvements in how landowners and farmers manage habitat for the birds. </p>
A Turtle Dove Haven<p>The 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex is another project taking a different approach and one of the few places where turtle dove numbers are increasing.</p><p>Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their intensively farmed land into a rewilding project almost 20 years ago. They have let the land return to nature.</p><p>Just one year after they'd finished <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/uks-most-talented-architects-are-not-human/a-35952128" target="_blank">rewilding</a> the southern part of their property, they heard turtle doves for the first time. It's now a breeding hotspot for the birds with an estimated 19 pairs. Knepp is also home to <a href="https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/rewilding-projects/knepp-estate" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2% of the UK's population</a> of nightingales. </p><p>Tree is critical of supplementary feeding schemes that, in her view, are short term. She questions the chances of turtle doves getting to feed on scattered seeds before other mammals eat them first.</p>
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