More than 90 percent of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is suffering some level of coral bleaching and will likely never return to its original state, a new study from the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies released Tuesday confirms.
“We’ve never seen anything like this scale of bleaching before,” said Terry Hughes, director of the research council. “In the northern Great Barrier Reef, it’s like 10 cyclones have come ashore all at once.”
The researchers, who conducted aerial surveys of hundreds of reefs in the system and published their findings in the journal Science, said although a strong El Niño season exacerbated the effects, climate change is the underlying cause of the bleaching event—which means the destruction is likely to continue.
Bleaching occurs when overly warm ocean waters cause coral to expel the algae living inside of it, which turns the coral white and erodes its structures. That, in turn, provides less shoreline protection and destroys natural habitats for marine life.
The current devastation, which is part of the third-ever global coral bleaching event in history, dwarfs previous events “by a long mark,” Hughes said. The northern portion, where 80 percent of reefs have been “severely” bleached and 50 percent are already dead, “won’t get back to what it was, certainly not in my lifetime,” Hughes said.
In a best-case scenario, recovery of the northern GBR would take decades, and “even then the reef will be only a shadow of its prebleaching self,” the report states. Hughes told reporters on Tuesday that “close to 50 percent of the coral is already dead or dying.”
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