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The third declared global coral bleaching event took place in 2016. Like the earlier bleaching events in 1998 and 2010, this event was triggered by warmer than average sea surface temperatures over extended time frames. This heat stress causes corals to expell the small algae in their tissues that are critical for providing food. The record-breaking sea surface temperatures seen in 2016 are fuelled by climate change, further amplified by a strong El Niño event.
For the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), 2016 was the worst coral bleaching event on record. Impacts were variable across the Reef, with the most extreme impacts in the northern GBR, where an estimated average two-thirds of corals died (based on assessments of 60 reefs in the region). That is the largest coral loss ever recorded for the GBR from a discrete event. Prior to this event, the northern area had been considered one of the most pristine and healthy areas of the reef. Generally, there were lower levels of bleaching impacts recorded moving southward along the huge 3,200 kilometre span of the Reef. Many reef areas in the southern section of the Reef reported little to no loss of corals from coral bleaching.
In February 2017, reports indicated that varying levels of coral bleaching were being seen on parts of the Great Barrier Reef and in Sydney. Water temperatures remained warm over the winter, prolonging the stress and currently sea temperatures are approximately 2 degrees celcius warmer than average.
What is coral bleaching?
- GBRMPA Coral bleaching factsheet
- GBRMPA Coral Bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef video
- GBRMPA Coral bleaching basics: causes and past events
- Learn more about mass bleaching from Australian Institute of Marine Science
- A very thorough video on the process of coral bleaching from HHMI BioInteractive
- Ocean Ark Alliance resources
- Information about GBR health from Great Barrier Reef Foundation
What is the latest news?
- Current bleaching update from Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
- Observe global oceans through Coral Reef Watch Satellite Monitoring
What is Reef Check doing?
- Around the world, Reef Check teams are tracking bleaching impacts on their reefs. The globally-standardised protocols of Reef Check offer the platform to understand this event at a global scale.
- Here in Australia, teams were busy in 2016, surveying 94 reef sites, with most of the focus in Queensland and a handful of surveys in Western Australia.
Collecting citizen science data for coral bleaching
- Eye on the Reef: Report your Sightings and photos of what you have seen out on the reef through the Eye on the Reef app. To take your reporting to the next level, participate in the online training course to undertake Rapid Monitoring Surveys to document key indicator species and crucial reef health observations.
- CoralWatch: Learn more about coral bleaching with the Coral Reefs and Climate Change book and online resources. Then, grab a Do It Yourself Kit to document the colour of corals on reefs you visit.
- Reef Check Australia: Share your photos and findings via the REEFSearch education and observation program. Help continue monitoring reef health beyond the bleaching event by joining as a trained volunteer to undertake globally-standardised reef health surveys.
What can you do?
- Champion citizen science. Report bleaching sightings through REEFSearch, CoralWatch or the Eye on the Reef Sightings network. Help capture information that contributes to understanding this massive event.
- Speak up for oceans. Be informed. Let your friends, neighbors and decision makers know what's happening and that the reef matters to you.
- Keep it clean. Minimise your use of single use disposables, recycle and properly dispose of rubbish. Fishing line, plastic bottle, bags, etc. harm the reef and the animals that live on the reef.
- Reduce fertilizer use. Nutrients from fertilizers can cause overgrowth of algae and suffocation of reefs.
- Slip, Slop, Slap. Use reef-friendly sunscreen or cover up when snorkeling or swimming near corals - oxybenzone, an ingredient in many sunscreens, has been shown to damage DNA in coral larvae and kill corals.
- Reduce your footprint. Reduce personal carbon emissions - walk, cycle, or ride public transport, use energy efficient appliances, increase renewable energy use, and try to buy local.
- Be a responsible boatie. If boating, use mooring buoys on reefs or anchor in sand - anchors and chains can drag across corals. Once broken, corals can take decades to re-grow.
- Find out more. Visit our Help reefs from home page.