Socialist Worker

Coral reefs dying due to inaction on the climate

by Dave Sewell
Issue No. 2501

Bleached coral in the Great Barrier Reef

Bleached coral in the Great Barrier Reef (Pic: Flikr)

World leaders lined up last Friday to sign the toothless climate treaty they agreed to in Paris last December. 

At the same time it emerged that a year of record-breaking heat has damaged coral reefs beyond repair.

With a quarter of marine species dependent on them, their loss could lead to a wave of extinctions.

A survey of the Great Barrier Reef, near Australia, last week revealed hundreds of miles of devastation.

Only 7 percent of the reef has been left unscathed by heat-induced “bleaching”.

In some areas most coral is dead or dying and large swathes are bleached.

This means that algae plants, which help coral to produce food, have been expelled leaving it whitened and starving.

Australian scientist Terry Hughes surveyed the damage to more than 500 reefs. “Almost without exception, every reef we flew across showed consistently high levels of bleaching,” he said.

“This has been the saddest research trip of my life.”

Bleached coral can sometimes recover through years of healing in low-stress environments. Global warming makes that unlikely.

US oceanographer Mark Eakin explained, “You have reefs getting hammered time and time again, year after year.

“Recovery at this point is very limited.”


Every month so far this year has broken the record for the hottest month globally on record because climate change combined with the cyclical El Nino weather system.

Previous bleaching events in 1998 and 2002 already scarred the reefs. Slower-growing species needed decades to recover and didn’t get them.

But climate change wiped out far more coral in 2016. The die-off could continue until well into next year.

It hits reefs already badly weakened—the Great Barrier Reef has shrunk by half in 30 years.

Even the fastest-growing species in the least stricken areas would need at least ten years to regrow.

They won’t get that time. Australian scientist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg warned, “We could be getting close to a scenario where the return time for bleaching is actually shorter than the recovery period.”

Even if next year is a little cooler, this year’s scorching effects will be lasting. Scientists in Greenland revealed with alarm that seasonal melting began months too early.

This has brought heat deep into the ice, making it weaker and liable to melt sooner and quicker in future.

This could lock in a future of rising seas. Though the surface ice may refreeze, the ice cap as a whole may never regain the stability it has lost.

The Tories are going backwards on climate policy—but climate change has no reverse gear.

And without a rapid halt to global warming there will be more drastic and irreversible changes to come.

Hoegh-Guldberg said, “If we don’t take aggressive action on climate change over the next decade, it will essentially mean the end of coral-dominated paradises like the Great Barrier Reef.”

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