Coral bleaching hits the Coral Triangle

From the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies:

International marine scientists say that a huge coral death which has struck Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean reefs over recent months has highlighted the urgency of controlling global carbon emissions.

Many reefs are dead or dying across the Indian Ocean and into the Coral Triangle following a bleaching event that extends from the Seychelles in the west to Sulawesi and the Philippines in the east and include reefs in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and many sites in western and eastern Indonesia.

“It is certainly the worst coral die-off we have seen since 1998. It may prove to be the worst such event known to science,” says Dr Andrew Baird of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook Universities. “So far around 80 percent of Acropora colonies and 50 per cent of colonies from other species have died since the outbreak began in May this year.”

This means coral cover in the region could drop from an average of 50% to around 10%, and the spatial scale of the event could mean it will take years to recover, striking at local fishing and regional tourism industries, he says.

The bleaching event has also hit the richest marine biodiversity zone on the planet, the ‘Amazon Rainforest’ of the seas, known as the Coral Triangle (CT), which is bounded by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Dive operators have recorded water temperatures of 34 C, over 4 degrees higher that than the long term average. Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg from the ARC and the director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland talking on The World Today said:

If you look at the satellite sea surface temperature measurements, they’re showing that seas are about one to three degrees warmer than the long-term averages for the region.

And that, if oceans remain at it for a month or two months, is enough to cause reefs to experience severe coral mortality.

It seems that the Indian Dipole event, which involves pooling of warm water in the eastern Indian Ocean, may have been involved and was accentuated by climate change. I’ve heard that the Indian Dipole is one of the factors giving us unusually wet weather in parts of Australia in recent months.

Climate Progress has a more than useful post with graphics, which also links to an article in Science Online about coral die-off in the Caribbean. It could be the worst ever.

What this means for the Great Barrier Reef, we will have to wait and see, but those of us who are feeling cool in Brisbane for this time of the year would be unwise to call the end of global warming. Climate Progress links to a NASA GISS commentary on the northern hemisphere summer temperatures.

Summer in 2010 figures as the fourth warmest on record. With the late breaking La Nina, calendar 2010 looks less likely to be a record, but GISS have lately been looking at running 12-month periods. Here they found that the 12 months to mid-2010 broke the record. In Russia the summer heat has been estimated as a once in every 15,000 years event.

For the coral reefs it’s a case of if the bleaching doesn’t get you the ocean acidity will.

24 thoughts on “Coral bleaching hits the Coral Triangle”

  1. Meanwhile, in Canberra, our politicians are having much fun playing at “government”. Having discussions, taking meetings, giving press conferences, talking loftily amoungst themselves, and just generally going through all of the motions that real grown up politicians do. And achieving absolutely nothing.

    In the face of the tsunami of mass environmental devastation moving slowly to engulf us all the notion that we have people called “polite-icians” as our front line decision makers seems totally bizare to me. What we really need are “action-icians”, “snappy-decision-making-icians”, “rapid-response-icians” or “get-the-job-done-instantly-icians”. If we want to know how much time we have left before our reefs die, our rivers dry, our houses burn, or our property is to be tornado vacuumed away, and we have to ask a “polite-ician”, how are we going to know if they are telling us the facts…or “protecting” us from “reality” and being polite.

    We’re caught desperately between a rock and a hard place with “polite-icians” on the left of us and “downright-rude-to-your-face-icians” on the right, with not much in between.

    We deserve something better than this horrible mess.

  2. Meanwhile in the far south: A 20-year study shows worrying results about the decline of krill, a form of plankton, in the Southern Ocean. But not to worry. The chances of voters being frightened by real action from Canberra can be safely dismissed. They will happily stuff around til the next election chasing the holy grail of putting a price on carbon so, wait for it, we just might actually do something after the next election?
    What we need is a a plan for tangible action before the next election. With “tangible” meaning cuts in a emissions, contracts signed for the cleaning up of electricity and/or other real action.

  3. Yes, John D, it was a toss-up which story I posted on last night. We are ripping out the top predators and the bottom of the ocean food chain seems to be in trouble.

    BilB, I think stories like this put an almighty question over the wisdom of thinking that dangerous climate change starts with an increase of 2C. What’s going on now is not acceptable IMHO.

  4. Interesting that the BOM states that we have had a negative Indian Ocean dipole which in hand with a La Nina event, has produced the wetter than normal spring this year. I’m hoping for a “normal” summer whatever that is, and it feels like spring has reverted to somewhat of a norm. Here’s hoping that summer proper is a tad kinder than the last couple of years!

  5. I went to hear David Suzuki speak last night. It was both encouraging (the Scott Theatre was full) and profoundly depressing.

  6. Yes indeed BilB. Politics in this country has become a pathetic farce with the ‘new paradigm’ the same as the old one despite the best intentions of the independents and Greens.

    There are simply too many vested interests with too much power in combination with media interests that want to pretend it can be business as usual for the forseeable future.

  7. Suzuki is a bit of a hero of mine.
    I lived for a year just next to his Canadian hometown of Leamington Ontario and when I informed him of such at a book signing of “The Wisdom of the Elders” he autographed my copy appropriately.
    He was on commercial TV [Sky I think] a few days ago and dispatched the usual stupid questions from the usual RWDBs with ease.
    It was pleasing to see the camera focus on the faces of the RWDBs, I forget who they were, as they showed their puzzlement and frustration as their best zingers went whooshing back over their heads to the wall for multiple home runs.

    My favourite Suzuki TV moment was donkeys years ago on the ABC when he responded to a typically foolish statement from a TV audience by a prominent member of the Inst of Public Affairs [so beloved of the ABC in recent times] with the rejoinder that;
    ‘You sir, would be a fool”.
    Ah,telling it like it is!

  8. John D @2, yes, that krill’s a real worry isn’t it? Here’s another report – “There has been almost a 90 percent decrease in krill abundance since 1980,” said Valerie Loeb of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory.

    http://edition.cnn.com/EARTH/9707/06/krill.kill/

    Oh wait – that’s a report from 1997.

    In other words I am far from convinced – there was a flurry of reporting in the same vein in 2004, too, after a paper in Nature – that this is not just another case of if at first your narrative of environmental doom doesn’t grab headlines and research dollars, try again in 5 years. And even if it isn’t, since the scientist in your referenced paper cheerfully admits that he hasn’t got a clue why there has been a fall in numbers, it is, surely, a little premature to excoriate Canberra for not taking action to address an entirely unknown cause.

    Mind you, there are more than a few Japanese who are sure they know the cause – far too many whales, devouring millions of tonnes of krill after a population explosion consequent on stupid western eco-freaks heavying the honest whaling industries of the world.

    Wouldn’t it be fun (purely hypothetically, since so far as I know there isn’t a skerrick of research evidence for the theory) if they were right? Inner city latte Greens having to wrestle with the concept of killing more whales to save the world would be a spectacle putting in the shade even their wrestling with more nukes to save the climate.

    No, it wouldn’t of course. Your average Green has no problem whatsoever in holding simultaneously holding two completely contradictory beliefs, no wrestling required.

    Brian, try to think of me as a helpful friend, wanting to inject some life into a thread that has so far struggled to get off the ground, not just an irritating little shit firing at random at environmentalists far better and wiser than himself.

  9. Wozza @ 9:

    Mind you, there are more than a few Japanese who are sure they know the cause – far too many whales, devouring millions of tonnes of krill after a population explosion consequent on stupid western eco-freaks heavying the honest whaling industries of the world

    I don’t know all that much about the Japanese, as I only spend three months of each year up there wandering around Honshu, but I know enough to know that that particular paragraph could not possibly be more wrong or more foolish.

  10. Thanks SG. They key part of the Cool Antarctica link are worth quoting:

    Recent studies (November 2004) have shown that stocks of krill in Antarctica have declined dramatically in recent years. The reason for this is likely to be a fall in the amount of sea ice in the winter months particularly in the Antarctic Peninsula region.

    Krill numbers may have dropped by as much as 80% since the 1970’s – so today’s stocks are a mere 1/5th of what they were only 30 years ago. The decline in krill may in turn account for the decline in the numbers of some penguin species.

    Dr Angus Atkinson from British Antarctic Survey, says: “This is the first time that we have understood the full scale of this decline. Krill feed on the algae found under the surface of the sea-ice, which acts as a kind of ‘nursery’.

    The Antarctic Peninsula, a key breeding ground for the krill, is one of the places in the world where there has been the greatest rise in temperatures due to global warming. This region has warmed by 2.5°C in the last 50 years (much more than the mean global rate), with a striking consequential decrease in winter sea-ice cover.

    “We don’t fully understand how the loss of sea-ice here is connected to the warming, but we believe that it could be behind the decline in krill.”

    There are commercial implications as well as scientific ones. The Southern Ocean is a valuable fisheries resource, many of the species caught feed on krill. Thousands of tourists are also attracted to Antarctica to enjoy the spectacular wildlife, most of which feed on krill.

    There has been previous speculation that krill stocks might have decreased, based on smaller more localized surveys over shorter time periods. This new finding comes from data from nine countries working in Antarctica who pooled their separate data covering 40 Antarctic summers, in the period between 1926 and 2003. This is the first time such a large-scale view of change across the Southern Ocean has been seen.

    Another animal that feeds on the same phytoplankton food as krill, jelly-like colonial animals called salps that drift in the ocean currents have increased in the same time the krill have decreased.

    We can speculate about the ice and wonder how important the decline of saplh predators might be. Baleen whales may eat a lot of saplph in conjunction with krill while many smaller krill predators may be able to pick the krill from a salp/krill mix.
    One of the things that has made it hard for cod to recover in the Atlantic is that adult cod used to be able to keep the numbers of juvenile cod predators in check. It is not the only case where a system can have more than one regions of high stability.

  11. John D,

    The connection between the sea ice and the Krill is that algae grows on the underside of the ice on the loose ice crystals which have a huge surface area. This is one of the krill’s main food sources. It’s a simple connection, less floating ice, less area on which algae can form, less algae, less krill.

  12. Mind you, there are more than a few Japanese who are sure they know the cause – far too many whales, devouring millions of tonnes of krill after a population explosion consequent on stupid western eco-freaks heavying the honest whaling industries of the world.

    Wozza, three weeks ago I interviewed a group of Japanese university students, in Japanese, about the issue of whaling, ocean conservation, and “Western oppression” of honest Japanese whaling.

    None of them expressed the view you attribute to ‘more than a few Japanese’.

    You’re a prize nong, Wozza.

  13. Thanks Bilb. Doesn’t mean though that there aren’t other things happening. Sometimes species that are incredibly common are successful because they have become incredibly common and, like the cod, have a real crisis when their numbers drop because the adults eat potential predators of the young, synchronized births limit the damage done by predators etc. The two groups that are increasing in the oceans at the moment are jelly fish and squid – hence my paranoia about those damn salphs!! (Pure speculation.)

  14. Almost certainly, John D. I was surprised to learn that humans harvest krill. What a scurge we humans are. It is well past the time when we should be rethinking, not just our carbon foot print, but our environmental footprint as well. And from the government down.

    What are we as humans entitled to. What is an acceptable extraction level for each of us, what should be the limits of our imprint on the natural world. Until we start to examine the devastation that there cannot be a recovery of our environment. If you talk openly about these things then you are likely to be labled a Greenie crackpot, that is how well entrenched is the view that we should be able to do whatever we like with nature.

  15. Bilb: Yes, the whole topic started me thinking about another incredibly common species and what would happen if something unexpected happened to this species if they ran out of transport fuel. The answer might resolve some of the problems you raised but it could be painful.
    As a matter of interest, the Greenie crackpots scored 1.4 tines the ALP primary vote in the Walter Taylor Brisbane city by-election when counting closed on Sat night. (But only 0.4 times the LNP vote.) The definition of “Greenie crackpot” and the membership of the “minor party” list may be shifting.

  16. Brian: Not surprising. The Labor letter drop could have been written by Abbott and co. Negative, carping, complaining about rates and offering no solutions.

  17. I don’t claim to know all that much about Japan these days either, terangeree, although if you want to trade reasons for our mutual incomprehension on that score I lived there for eight years. But one thing I do know is that whether you like it or not claims that whales are as least as much responsible as humans for the decline in numerous fish stocks, through competition for food including krill, are alive and well and living in the Fisheries Agency.

    Most claims are in Japanese and don’t Google very well, but try this article. It would hardly be necssary to refute claims if they hadn’t been made.

    http://www.hsus.org/hsi/oceans/whales/pro_whaling_nations/japan/report_repudiates_japans.html

    None of which is to say that I support the claims. They could though be given a little more attention than they are in Australia because one of the species that is alleged to be suffering most from the depredations of the evil cetaceans is Southern Bluefin Tuna, which is pretty important in my part of the country, and is now verging on the endangered.

  18. Oh, and sorry Mercurius, I missed you further down rabbitting on the same score. You are of course as always easily missed by anyone reading for actual facts and evidence.

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