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The Global Coral Ecosystems Experience Severe Bleaching Event, One of the Worst on Record

(CNN) — Coral reefs worldwide are currently undergoing mass bleaching due to the increasing heat in the oceans caused by the climate crisis. Two scientific organizations announced on Monday that more than 54% of the world’s coral reefs have experienced bleaching in the last year, affecting 53 countries and territories across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans.

“This event is expected to surpass the previous peak of 56.1% soon,” stated Derek Manzello, the coordinator of NOAA’s Coral Reef Monitoring program. The percentage of reef areas experiencing bleaching-level heat stress is on the rise, increasing by approximately 1% per week.

When corals are exposed to marine heat waves, they expel the algae that reside in their tissues, which provide color and energy. If ocean temperatures do not return to normal, bleaching can lead to mass coral death, putting species and food chains at risk.

This is the fourth global episode of bleaching, with previous occurrences in 1998, 2010, and between 2014 and 2017. Over the past year, mass bleaching has been confirmed in regions like Florida, the Wider Caribbean, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, the South Pacific, and the Red Sea.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a coral reef climatologist at the University of Queensland, Australia, had predicted this mass bleaching months ago. He mentioned concerns about the rapid rise in sea temperatures and the uncertainty of how long this drastic temperature change will last.

The past 12 months have been the warmest recorded globally, leading to soaring ocean temperatures. In February, scientists added three new alert levels to coral bleaching maps to monitor the increasing scale of underwater warming.

El Niño, a weather pattern originating in the Pacific Ocean, has contributed to the unprecedented ocean heat. NOAA forecasts indicate that La Niña, its colder counterpart, may arrive between June and August, providing some hope for coral reefs. However, experts remain cautious as there have been instances of bleaching during La Niña in recent years.

In mid-February, extensive coral bleaching was observed on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, with the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority confirming mass bleaching last month. The Director General of AIMS emphasized the impact of climate change on coral reefs and stressed the importance of reducing carbon emissions and implementing effective reef management.

The United Nations Environment Program warns that without significant emission reductions, the planet is on track to warm by nearly 3°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. Scientists predict that even with a 2°C temperature rise, which could occur by 2050, about 99% of Earth’s corals could die.

Coral reefs play a crucial role as habitats for marine life and as a defense system against storm flooding and rising sea levels for coastal communities. They also provide livelihoods and food sources for billions of people globally. Greenpeace Australia’s CEO emphasized the urgent need to address climate change and transition away from fossil fuels to protect coral reefs from irreversible damage.

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