Great Barrier Reef more prone to future bleaching events

Melbourne (PTI): Australia’s Great Barrier Reef risks losing tolerance to bleaching events under near future climate change scenarios, a new study on the largest living thing on Earth has warned.

The study found that Great Barrier Reef (GBR) corals were able to survive past bleaching events because they were exposed to a pattern of gradually warming waters in the lead up to each episode.

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However, this protective pattern is likely to be lost under near future climate change scenarios.

Researchers from ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at James Cook University (JCU) and the University of Queensland (UQ), as well as the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) investigated what this warming pattern means for GBR coral bleaching events into the future.

“When corals are exposed to a pre-stress period in the weeks before bleaching, as temperatures start to climb, this acts like a practice run and prepares the coral. Corals that are exposed to this pattern are then less stressed and more tolerant when bleaching does occur,” said lead author Dr Tracy Ainsworth from Coral CoE.

The researchers found that this “practice run” induces heat shock responses in the coral that reduce their severity of bleaching and mortality.

The protective “practice run” was observed in three-quarters of stress events that occurred on the GBR in the past three decades.

Early evidence suggests that the 2016 GBR bleaching event has also followed the same pattern. Some individual reefs not previously exposed to bleaching stress at all missed out on the “practice run” this time, suggesting that the damage to the corals on those reefs could be even greater.

The pre-stress conditions are expected to disappear when seawater temperatures rise by as little as 0.5 degrees Celsius, such as predicted for the near future. Corals will then instead be directly exposed to stress events.

“When corals lose the practice run, there is no break, or “relaxing” for the corals as summer stress develops,” said co-author Dr Scott Heron, from Coral Reef Watch at NOAA.

“In future summers, bleaching events will occur more often and, without the practice run, become even more severe – with a greater risk for coral mortality and a fast decline in coral cover across reefs,” said Heron.

The study examined 27 years worth of satellite data for sea surface temperatures, previous coral bleaching events, and studied how corals responded to different seawater warming conditions.

Under future climate change predictions, different reefs on the GBR will lose their protective mechanism at different rates.

The study recommends that reefs able to retain the “practice run” of protective conditions prior to bleaching be given high priority for conservation efforts. The study was published in the journal Science.

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