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NOAA Forecast: Great Barrier Reef Could Face Third Mass Bleaching Event in 4 Years

Climate
NOAA Forecast: Great Barrier Reef Could Face Third Mass Bleaching Event in 4 Years
Bleached staghorn coral in the Great Barrier Reef. Matt Kieffer / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

For any nature lover, one of the most sobering pieces of information from this month's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was that global warming of just two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels could kill off 99 percent of tropical coral reefs. And even if we act quickly and successfully limit warming to 1.5 degrees, 70 to 90 percent of these invaluable ecosystems will still be lost.

Now, an alarming forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows that process could begin as early as this Australian summer in one of the most iconic reefs of all: the Great Barrier Reef.


The forecast shows a 60 percent chance that the entire reef will face extreme heat stress and coral bleaching between November 2018 and February 2019.

coralreefwatch.noaa.gov

"This is really the first warning bells going off that we are heading for an extraordinarily warm summer and there's a very good chance that we'll lose parts of the reef that we didn't lose in the past couple of years," marine biologist and Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland Director Ove Hoegh-Guldberg told The Guardian. "These are not good predictions and this is a wake-up call."

The forecast further warns that the southern half of the reef has a 60 percent chance of experiencing a level two bleaching event, at which point coral death is likely, Australia's ABC reported.

The Great Barrier Reef suffered back-to-back bleaching events for the first time in 2016 and 2017, which killed 50 percent of the coral in shallow waters. If the reef suffers bleaching again in 2019, it will be the third time in four years, a frequency not predicted until the second half of the 21st century.

Coral bleaching data for part of the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017.NOAA

Bleaching is what happens when waters get so warm that corals expel the algae that live inside them, providing them with nutrients. If the water does not cool and the algae does not return in time, the coral starves.

However, NOAA scientists said there was still hope that forecasts could change.

"Lots of things, including major weather patterns, can change the probabilities over the next three months," Dr Mark Eakin, the head of NOAA's Coral Reef Watch, told ABC. "I wouldn't say dire yet, but it is concerning."

In 2016, for example Cyclone Winston cooled water temperatures enough to save the southern part of the reef from bleaching. Eakin noted that predictions for March, when coral bleaching is most likely to occur, are still unclear.

The Australian government said they took the forecast seriously.

"We acknowledge that climate change has an impact on the reef," Australia Environment Minister Melissa Price told The Guardian. "That's one of the reasons that Australia is working with other countries to tackle climate change through the Paris agreement, and we will deliver on the commitment to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent of 2005 levels by 2030."

However, the most recent report showed Australia's greenhouse gas emissions were rising, and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack told SkyNews that the country would continue to use its coal reserves despite the IPCC report.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) criticized the Australian government for continuing to pander to fossil fuel interests.

"How much more of the Great Barrier Reef has to die before the Federal Government acts on climate change,"AMCS spokesperson Imogen Zethoven asked in a press release. "While our Reef is in danger, our politicians continue to ignore the issue of climate change with no credible plan to reduce pollution."

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An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

A large patch of leaked oil and the vessel MV Wakashio near Blue Bay Marine Park off the coast of southeast Mauritius on Aug. 6, 2020. AFP via Getty Images

The environmental disaster that Mauritius is facing is starting to appear as its pristine waters turn black, its fish wash up dead, and its sea birds are unable to take flight, as they are limp under the weight of the fuel covering them. For all the damage to the centuries-old coral that surrounds the tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean, scientists are realizing that the damage could have been much worse and there are broad lessons for the shipping industry, according to Al Jazeera.

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A quality engineer examines new solar panels in a factory. alvarez / Getty Images

Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.

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Imported frozen food in three Chinese cities has tested positive for the new coronavirus, but public health experts say you still shouldn't worry too much about catching the virus from food or packaging.

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Although heat waves rarely get the attention that hurricanes do, they kill far more people per year in the U.S. and abroad. greenaperture / Getty Images

By Jeff Berardelli

Note: This story was originally published on August 6, 2020

If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.

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