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Hawaii on Verge of Worst Coral Bleaching in History as Water Temperatures Soar

Science

Hawaii's majestic coral reef, which makes up roughly 85 percent of all coral reefs in the country, could be entering a perilous state. The state's corals could experience the worst bleaching its history this year as surrounding water temperatures rise at abnormal rates, scientists warn.

Water temperatures around Hawaii are currently about 3 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal, Chris Brenchley, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Honolulu, told the Associated Press.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), coral bleaching is a phenomenon that occurs when warm water temperatures expel the algae living in their tissues, causing the coral to turn completely white.

It appears that this year's especially warm waters are already causing harm to Hawaii's precious coral. Ruth Gates, the director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, told Buzzfeed that on a recent trip to see the corals, about 10 percent were white.

She told Buzzfeed that climate change and local conditions, such as plenty of sun, are to blame for higher-than-usual water temperatures.

According to the AP, bleaching has been spotted in Kaneohe Bay and Waimanalo on Oahu and Olowalu on Maui. On the Big Island, bleaching is reported from Kawaihae to South Kona on the leeward side and Kapoho in the southeast.

Courtney Couch, a researcher at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, told the AP that an entire mile and a half of reef on the eastern side of Lisianski Island was essentially dead.

The coral further out from the atoll handled the warm temperatures better, she added.

These current sightings follow earlier warnings from NOAA, which predicted a severe coral bleaching event from August to October 2015 in Hawaii.

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In the tweet below from Dr. Mark Eakin, a coral reef specialist and coordinator of NOAA's Coral Reef Watch, you can see that most of Hawaii is now at coral bleaching Alert Level 1. (Florida, by the way, is faring even worse).

Of particular concern, since many of Hawaii's corals are still recovering from last year's mass bleaching, a second year of warm temperatures would only cause more stress to the organisms.

"You can't stress an individual, an organism, once and then hit it again very, very quickly and hope they will recover as quickly," Gates told the AP.

Gates also explained to Buzzfeed that this year's conditions are “unprecedented" and “very worrying."

“I'm struggling to find an example where we've had two back to back bleaching events," she added. “This double whammy is not really common."

Coral bleaching not only increases the corals' risk for disease and/or death, it also has a serious effect on the fish and other marine life that live in the reefs, as well as local fishing and tourism operations. While bleaching isn't the main culprit of reef decline, the U.S. lost half of its coral reefs in the Caribbean in 2005 alone due to a massive bleaching event, NOAA pointed out.

"You go from a vibrant, three-dimensional structure teeming with life, teeming with color, to a flat pavement that's covered with brown or green algae," Gates told the AP. "That is a really doom-and-gloom outcome but that is the reality that we face with extremely severe bleaching events."

So what can we do to help? In the video below, aquatic biologist Brian Neilson, who works for Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources, explains that bleached coral can recover, and we can all help make a difference.

"Climate change impacts threaten coral reef ecosystems by increasing ocean temperatures, storm activity, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise ... Therefore it is essential that we not only reduce emissions, but take urgent actions to reduce the impact of elevated greenhouse gases on coral reef ecosystems," NOAA advises.

If you're in Hawaii, submit any sightings of bleached coral to the state's "Eyes on the Reef" website.

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