Great Barrier Reef may never recover from bleaching: study

Bleached coral is photographed on Australia's Great Barrier Reef near Port Douglas, on Feb 20, 2017.
Bleached coral is photographed on Australia's Great Barrier Reef near Port Douglas, on Feb 20, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS/GREENPEACE

PARIS (AFP) - Australia's Great Barrier Reef may never recover from last year's warming-driven coral bleaching, said a study that called for urgent action in the face of ineffective conservation efforts.

Record-high temperatures in 2015 and 2016 drove an unprecedented bleaching episode, which occurs when stressed corals expel the algae that live in their tissue and provide them with food.

Bleached coral is more susceptible to disease, and without sufficient time to recover - which can take one decade or several depending on the species - it can die.

For the new study released late Wednesday, an Australian-led team examined the impact of three major bleaching events - in 1998, 2002 and 2016 - over the reef's entire 2,300-kilometre length.

In 2016, they found, the proportion of constituent reefs experiencing extreme bleaching was over four times higher than in the two previous episodes. Only nine per cent escaped bleaching altogether, compared with more than 40 per cent in 2002 and 1998.

"The chances of the northern Great Barrier Reef returning to its pre-bleaching assemblage structure are slim given the scale of damage that occurred in 2016 and the likelihood of a fourth bleaching event occurring within the next decade or two as global temperatures continue to rise," the team wrote.

Earlier this month, researchers warned that the reef was already experiencing an unprecedented second straight year of bleaching.

Local reef protection "affords little or no resistance" to extreme heat, the researchers wrote in the journal Nature.

Current endeavours focus on better water quality and fisheries management, but "even the most highly protected reefs and near-pristine areas are highly susceptible to severe heat stress," they said.

The findings have important implications for coral reef conservation efforts.

"Bolstering resilience will become more challenging and less effective in coming decades because local interventions have had no discernible effect on resistance of corals to extreme heat stress," the study said.

Coinciding with the study's launch, lead author Terry Hughes from Australia's Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, said researchers were re-mobilising to conduct aerial and underwater surveys tracking the second year of bleaching now underway.

"We're hoping that the next 2-3 weeks will cool off quickly, and this year's bleaching won't be anything like last year," he said. "The severity of the 2016 bleaching was off the chart."

Co-author Janice Lough, from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, said the average sea-surface temperatures for the Australian summer in 2016 were the highest ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef.

"In each of the three events since 1998, the pattern of bleaching matches exactly where the warmest water was each year. That allows us to predict when and where bleaching is likely to occur this year," she added.

Hughes and Lough agree climate change is the number one threat to the World Heritage-listed natural wonder, arguing the only solution was "urgent and rapid action" to limit global warming that is expected to further increase water temperatures and coral die-offs.

"It broke my heart to see so many corals dying on northern reefs on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016," said Hughes, who led the expansive aerial surveys that revealed the damage.

"With rising temperatures due to global warming, it's only a matter of time before we see more of these events. A fourth event after only one year is a major blow to the reef."

The world's nations agreed in Paris in 2015 to limit average warming to two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, by curbing fossil fuel burning.