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Australia’s second year of Barrier Reef bleaching threatens species

Australia’s 2,300-kilometre Great Barrier Reef is experiencing an unprecedented second straight year of mass coral bleaching, scientists said on Friday, warning numerous species would struggle to fully recover.

Warming sea temperatures in March and April last year inflicted the most severe bleaching in the reef’s recorded history.

An aerial survey off Australia’s eastern coast on Thursday left little doubt that bleaching recurred and prompted the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to announce the detrimental development.

“Regrettably, the temperatures have been high on the Great Barrier Reef this summer as well and unfortunately [we] are here to confirm… a mass coral bleaching event for the second consecutive year,” the Authority’s reef recovery director David Wachenfeld said in a Facebook video.

“Importantly, this is the first time we’ve ever seen the Great Barrier Reef bleached two years in sequence. We’ve seen heat stress build since December,” it added.

Regrettably, the part of the reef that was spared bleaching last year was reported to be succumbing to the phenomenon this year.

Neal Cantin from the Australian Institute of Marine Science commented that the back-to-back occurrence of widespread bleaching also meant there was insufficient time for corals to fully recover.

“We are seeing a decrease in the stress tolerance of these corals,” Mr Cantin added in a statement. “This is the first time the Great Barrier Reef has not had a few years between bleaching events to recover. Many coral species appear to be more susceptible to bleaching after more than 12 months of sustained above-average ocean temperatures.”

What triggers bleaching are abnormal environmental conditions, such as warmer sea temperatures. This causes corals to eject tiny photosynthetic algae, draining them of their colour. At this point, corals can still recover if the water temperature drops and the algae are able to recolonise them.

However, in January, researchers demonstrated little hope for a full recovery, saying coral reefs would remain badly damaged due to global warming, which amplified the bleaching effects. Farming run-off, development and the crown-of-thorns starfish also nip at the Barrier Reef’s sustainability.

On Friday, conservation group WWF-Australia said that the bleaching increased the urgency required to tackle climate change on the continent, one of the world’s worst per capita greenhouse gas polluters.

The reef scientists plan to conduct further surveys over the next few weeks to determine the extent and severity of the bleaching.

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