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Ocean Heat Waves Kill Coral Instantly, Study Finds

Oceans
Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef. The Ocean Agency / Xl Catlin Seaview Survey

Marine heat waves are increasing in frequency, duration and intensity, which spell trouble for corals, according to new research from scientists working at the Great Barrier Reef.


The increased frequency in heat waves is a direct byproduct of the climate crisis the scientists say, as the BBC reported.

The researchers knew that oceanic heat waves contributed to coral degradation, or bleaching, where the coral sheds the colorful algae covering and nourishing it and the coral slowly starves. What surprised the scientists was just how rapidly they died off when they experience a heat wave, according to Agence France Presse.

Yet, while corals can often regenerate after a bleaching event once ocean temperatures are more hospitable to the corals' symbiotic algae, heat waves that come on rapidly and linger are separate existential event that cause immediate death. Reefs will also have to weather extreme marine heat waves, which is "a distinct biological phenomenon from bleaching events," according to the study's authors, led by William Leggat, a coral reef expert at the University of Newcastle in Australia, as Vice's Motherboard reported.

"Now, we see there is also a temperature at which the coral animal itself suffers from heat-induced mortality," explained co-author Tracy Ainsworth, a marine biologist at the University of New South Wales, in an email, as reported by Vice. "This isn't starvation, this is the animal itself undergoing mortality directly from the heat of the water."

To perform the study, the researchers looked at two coral species that were severely affected by a 2016 marine heatwave that struck Australia's Great Barrier Reef and resulted in 90 percent of the reef experiencing some degree of bleaching, according to Vice.

In laboratory conditions, the researchers exposed the corals to simulations of the extreme and rapid temperature increases experienced by the reefs suffering a marine heat wave. They saw that it did not kill the reef slowly, instead the corals lose their tissues, which exposes their skeleton to microbes that dissolve them.

Essentially, in a sever heat wave, a whole structure of a coral colony collapses, as Vice reported.

"The scary thing is — this is a new phenomenon that's being caused by climate change," said Leggat to the BBC. "And the impacts are even more severe than we had thought."

"Climate scientists talk about 'unknown unknowns' — impacts that we haven't anticipated from existing knowledge and experience," said James Heron, a scientist at James Cook University who contributed to the study, as Agence France Presse reported. "This discovery fits into this category. As we begin now to understand this impact, the question is how many more of these 'unknown unknowns' might there still be that could bring faster and greater damage to coral reefs from climate change."

Scientists hope that politicians and policy makers will start to pay attention to the climate science and recognize the need for urgent action to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

"It's hard to know just how much we have to keep saying that this is a big problem before policy-makers decide to do something about it," said Dr James Guest from Newcastle University in the UK, who has been studying coral reef habitats for more than 15 years and was not involved in the study, as the BBC reported.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.