The “largest living structure on the planet,” the Great Barrier Reef off the northeast coast of Australia is presently seeing the worst coral bleaching its ever seen according to a new study released today. While the worst bleaching on record has occurred in El Nino years, humans aren’t to be let off the hook that easy due to continued global warming.

Coral bleaching

What is coral bleaching?

Bleaching, while not the same as mortality, is not a good thing. Bleaching of coral occurs when warm ocean temperatures essentially rid the coral of the algae that lives inside of it. This algae, through photosynthesis, provides coral with energy and lacking the algae and energy turns the coral white and can kill coral if the algae isn’t returned. This particular bleaching phenomenon goes back to last year when a strong El Niño effect began and is still continuing.

“We’re seeing very severe bleaching in the northern part of the reef,” said professor Terry Hughes of James Cook University, where he heads the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. “And I think that just highlights how precarious the situation has become, whereby severe El Niño events, which happen every few years, are enough to trigger a bleaching event. And it wasn’t always like that.” Clearly the end of this statement is an indictment of mankind’s hand in global warming. (Let’s make this quite clear…For those of you have read my work in the past or if this is your first time..both global warming and climate change are real and if you don’t believe this to be true, I won’t be upset if you just skip this and keep browsing. I will not preface either with “potential” or “possible” now or ever.)

Huges and his colleagues identified the bleaching and its severity after an extensive aerial study of 520 reefs north of Cairns, Australia which comprise the northern portion of the reef which in Hughes estimation is the most “pristine” part of the reef. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Great Barrier Reef stretches over 2,300 kilometers and is home to some 400 species of coral and plays host to around 1,500 species of fish.

“We found only 4 reefs out of 520 that weren’t bleached to some extent, and more than 95 percent of the reefs were in the top 2 most severe bleaching categories,” Hughes said. This is much worse than bleaching in 2002 where only 18% of the reefs merited either distinction.

Coral is severely affected by climate change and the warming and acidification of ocean waters will ultimately lead to “corals becoming increasingly rare on reef systems.”

Mark Eakin, a corals expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration firmly believes that the El Niño of 2015-2016 has been made worse due to climate change.

“This is a lot broader than just what’s going on in the Great Barrier Reef. It’s literally happening across half of the Southern Hemisphere at this point,” Eakin said.

Not just Australia

The coral bleaching began in June 2014 and also affected areas of the Caribbean and Hawaii.

“This is not like any global bleaching event we’ve seen in the past,” Eakin said. “In the past, these events have been a one-year event. What happened in ’98, happened in ’98. It was all within the scope of less than 12 months.”

This is the third bleaching event joining 1998, and 2010.

Eaking believes that the bleaching event being observed at the Great Barrier Reef will shift to the Northern Hemispere as it begins to warm during the summer months. “We’re just in the opening parts of Act 2 at this point,” he said.