Presently, the Great Barrier Reef off the northeast coast of Australia is seeing coral bleaching at a rate not seen for years. While it is a phenomenon that is attributable to El Niño, global warming and the rise of ocean temperatures in years where El Niño is not present pose grave dangers to the UNESCO world heritage site.

Global Warming Threatens Great Barrier Reef, Coral

New study shows grave threats to this plethora of marine life

While the United States Congress is likely to not ratify the Paris climate deal, that’s just what you would expect from those muppets. Unfortunately, the ratification of a deal that would see a change in carbon contributions from nearly 200 countries is fairly irrelevant given the damage we are already doing.

The Great Barrier Reef is in real danger. While this has been known for some time, a piece published in the journal Science today shows just how bad it’s getting. Beyond the implications to the 70,000 jobs and more than $6 billion in tourism dollars that Australia counts on each year is the threat of a dead reef sometime in the 2050s.

Essentially, when water temperatures rise by just two degrees Celsius, algae which is the primary food source of becomes toxic and coral is forced to get rid of it. It’s not terrifically different than you throwing out a chicken from your refrigerator that may or may not be bad. It’s just easier to get rid of it than risk illness. This turns the starving coral white in a phenomenon known as bleaching. While bleaching and mortality are wholly different animals, bleaching does lead to higher coral mortality rates.

While some coral is able to prepare, that’s not the case with all coral and, frankly, researchers don’t know why.

Great barrier reef – Bleaching comes in three forms

Tracy Ainsworth, a researcher at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Townsville, Australia, took nearly thirty years of of satellite weather data from the Great Barrier Reef to discern this tri-fold understanding.

The reef extends for over 1,200 miles and seemingly there is little of it that is not threatened at present. A few regions experience a singular burst of warm waters, while others get an occasional dose followed by cooling waters. Other parts of the reef see coral get little bursts of warmer water that actually benefit it as it builds a tolerance of sorts.

This last group is the least susceptible to bleaching.

“I like the runner analogy,” says Ainsworth. “For those that can do a practice run first and do a little bit of training, they can handle it.”

Despite the dangers of bleaching, it appears as if bleaching events have strengthened the resolve of large portions of coral that make up the reef.

“This event could have been even worse,” he says. “We’re talking the order of twice as bad,” says Scott Heron National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), one of the study’s coauthors.

“Say you fall asleep in your car on the highway, and you wake up and find yourself driving at sixty, seventy miles an hour into a brick wall,” says the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s director of reef recovery. “You wouldn’t think, ‘Hm, how hard do I have to stamp on the brake pedal before I hit the wall?’

“You’d just brake as hard as you can.”

Trouble is, we’re often not that smart unless, indeed, on a highway.