Record heat over the Great Barrier Reef prompts fears of a second summer of coral bleaching

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dated: 2022-11-25 06:38:16 .

Photo: Sam McNeil/AP

Sea temperatures over parts of the Great Barrier Reef reached record levels this month, raising fears of a second summer in a row of mass coral bleaching.

Data from the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show that sea surface temperatures over the northern parts of the ridge were the highest since November 1985.

See also: “Beautiful milestone”: Great Barrier Reef nursery-grown corals give birth for the first time

Since the peak of accumulated heat over the reef is not expected until February, cooler weather conditions and cyclone activity before then could prevent mass bleaching.

Professor Terry Hughes, a leading expert on coral bleaching at James Cook University, said he had never seen heat stress accumulate on the reef so early, but a “well-timed cyclone” in December could reduce the risk of bleaching.

“It is certain that temperature records will be broken. The warning signs are clear,” he said.

Last summer’s mass bleaching, announced by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), was the first eruption during La Niña — a climate pattern that has historically kept sea temperatures low enough to avoid bleaching.

Hughes said: “Following Noah’s predictions, there is a good chance we will see another back-to-back bleaching event. That shouldn’t happen until the middle of this century.”

Rising sea temperatures caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, caused six mass bleaching events along the reef in 1998, 2002, 2016, 2017, 2020 and 2022.

Last summer’s bleaching, which affected 91% of all individual reefs, came after record sea temperatures on the reef in December.

But according to data from Noaa, more heat is currently accumulating over the ridge to the north than at the same time last year.

A recent forecast by Noah suggests that by the end of January, large parts of the northern reef are likely to bleach significantly, and in the weeks that follow, there could be enough heat in some areas to cause coral death.

Bureau of Meteorology forecasts of sea surface temperatures also show heat accumulation over the reef in December and January.

Observations show that current temperatures in the central and northern part of the ridge are about 2°C above average.

Related: Record-breaking coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef is good news, but the climate threat remains

Corals can recover from bleaching when temperatures are not high. Scientists have noticed an increase in the amount of coral on the reef in recent years – a recovery fueled by fast-growing corals, which experts say are also the most vulnerable to bleaching.

GBRMPA senior scientist Dr. David Wachenfeld said the agency is reviewing Noae and the bureau’s predictions “to understand what might happen this summer.”

He said conditions ahead of this summer were a concern, but said: “Local weather patterns will have a big impact on sea surface temperatures over the summer – for example if it’s raining or if it’s cloudy. Temperatures are also hottest in February.

“At this point it is too early to say what this summer will mean for the reef, although the current La Niña event is expected to increase rainfall along the east and northeast coasts.”

He said the agency will use satellite, aerial and marine observations to monitor conditions and make forecasts.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a pioneer in coral bleaching at the University of Queensland, said: “This is a steady but rapid rise in sea temperatures and that is very worrying. This one [heat stress] it takes place many weeks earlier than usual – in the past it was in January. I had to look at my watch.

“The fact that this is probably the warmest November on record [over the reef] and given what we know about heat stress in corals, it doesn’t bode well.”

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Record heat over the Great Barrier Reef prompts fears of a second summer of coral bleaching

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