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AUSTRALIA SCIENCE ENVIRONMENT REEF Stopping global warming only way to save Australia's Great Barrier Reef

Published at Thursday, 31 January 2019. Global Warming. By .

Across the world, scores of brilliantly colored coral reefs once teeming with life have in recent years become desolate, white graveyards. Their deaths due to coral bleaching have grown more frequent as ocean temperatures rise, mainly due to increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The hot water stresses corals, forcing them to expel the colorful algae living inside them, which leaves the corals vulnerable to disease and death. Given enough time, bleached coral can recover if the water cools, but if the temperature stays too high for too long, the coral will die.

The researchers conducted aerial and underwater surveys of the Great Barrier Reef, which has experienced three major bleaching events, the worst of which occurred last year. The scientists found that the severity of bleaching was tightly linked to how warm the water was. In the north, which experienced the hottest temperatures, hundreds of individual reefs suffered severe bleaching in 2016, regardless of whether the water quality was good or bad, or whether fishing had been banned. That means even the most pristine parts of the reef are just as prone to heat stress as those that are less protected.

"I think it's a wake-up call," Hughes said. "We've been hoping that local interventions with water quality and fishing would improve the resistance of the corals to bleaching. We found no evidence that that's actually true, at least during a very severe event." The study shows that older ways of thinking about reef management, such as reducing river runoff, are now moot points when it comes to preventing bleaching, said Kim Cobb, a climate scientist and coral researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. "It all seems so quaint now, really," said Cobb, who wasn't part of the study. "A future that we thought was decades coming is basically here."

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