Scientists: The Great Barrier Reef as We Knew It Is Gone

Great Barrier Reef saw huge losses from 2016 heatwave

In the 2016 event, however, bleaching began at 2 DHW and corals began dying at 3 DHW.

"The 2016 marine heatwave has triggered the initial phase of that transition on the northern, most-pristine region of the Great Barrier Reef, changing it forever as the intensity of global warming continues to escalate", reads the study, written by scientists from numerous Australian institutions as well as the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The results of the model predict that the coral will become more sensitive to temperature swings, which will result in occasional die-offs. Our study shows that coral reefs are already changing radically in response to unprecedented heat waves., warns Professor Hughes.

"So, 2 degree heating weeks started the bleaching at a low level; by the time you get to 4 degree heating weeks, half the corals were bleached and they start to die; and by time you get to 6, we start to see a real transformation in the mix of coral species", said Hughes.

"In the northern, 700-km-long section of the Great Barrier Reef in which the heat exposure was the most extreme, 50.3 percent of the coral cover on reef crests was lost within eight months".

The scientists were then able to demonstrate that coral deaths were highly related to the amount of bleaching and the level of heat exposure.

Professor Hughes said that as well as bleaching, "many millions of coral" in the northern third of the reef were killed much more directly by the 2016 heat.

Global warming has left a substantial scar on Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

The ocean's reefs have now experienced two back-to-back years of the most widespread bleaching ever observed, and the scientists studying it believe that much of it is a lost cause. "The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef system and for two-thirds of it to be damaged in two years is heartbreaking really".

"Diverse coral communities are needed to have diverse fish and shrimp and crab and worms and all of the other species that live on reefs", Mark Eakin, one of the study's authors, told NPR. It's also incredibly hard for the coral to recover.

Averaged across the Great Barrier Reef, Professor Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Center for Excellence in Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) in Australia, says that 30 percent of corals were lost in the nine-year period months between March and November 2016. "We need to focus urgently on protecting the glass that's still half full, by helping these survivors to recover", said Hughes.

The "catastrophic" bleaching event in 2016 wiped out a third of entire the coral reef system, while the 2017 ocean heatwave claimed another 20 percent.

Corals aren't just beautiful-they are a key part of an ecological system that supports both animals and humans.

Researchers across Australia and the world are attempting to save the Great Barrier Reef and other coral reefs like it by developing heat-resistant coral, creating 3D simulations to track erosion and showing the world (in VR no less) what we stand to lose.

"They are the ones that are going to refeed and repopulate an altered reef into the future", Hughes said, adding that one way to maintain their health was through improving water quality by reducing coastal pollution.

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