Bangkok Post

Record heat this year to hurt Great Barrier Reef

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TOWNSVILLE: Record-breaking warm waters have bleached large parts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef this year, as they did in 2016 and 2017, scientists reported on Thursday — the latest sign that global warming threatens the health of one of the world’s most important marine ecosystems.

“We can confirm that the Great Barrier Reef is experienci­ng its third massbleach­ing event in five years,” David Wachenfeld, chief scientist of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, said in a video posted on its website.

Water that is warmer than normal stresses the corals that create a reef, causing them to lose colour and even become white. Corals that experience moderate bleaching usually recover, but those that are severely bleached die.

Scientists say that reefs around the world have been dying at an alarming rate for several years because of global warming. Reef corals grow very slowly, and while most of them can only live in warm water, they are highly sensitive to above-normal temperatur­es.

The Great Barrier Reef is estimated to support thousands of marine species, and it is essential to the lives of some Aboriginal groups and the natives of the Torres Strait Islands, between the Australian mainland and New Guinea. It also drives significan­t economic activities like tourism and fishing; scientists said that important areas for reef tourism, particular­ly in the north, have not been hit badly this year.

The Great Barrier Reef Authority, an Australian government agency, based its announceme­nt of mass bleaching on observatio­ns, still underway, made in the water and from the air.

The data is new, but not surprising. The same weather patterns that generated record-breaking heat and catastroph­ic fires in Australia during the Southern Hemisphere’s spring and summer have also heated the oceans.

In terms of water temperatur­es around the reef, February was the warmest month on record, with readings in some places more than a few degrees higher than average for the time of year, the authority recently reported.

“The Great Barrier Reef remains under pressure from heat stress that accumulate­d over the 2019-20 summer, particular­ly in February and early March 2020, and resultant bleaching that is occurring,” the authority said in a statement released on Thursday.

The reef — really a network of hundreds of reefs — is the world’s largest, running for more than 1,170 kilometres in the Pacific Ocean, off Australia’s tropical northeaste­rn coast. It consists of the bleached remains of countless past generation­s of corals and molluscs, with living corals and other invertebra­tes clinging to its surface.

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