Ocean heat waves damage reefs and kill coral

Indian Ocean coral, bleached, but able to recover. Image: By CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, via Wikimedia Commons

Heat extremes on land can kill. Ocean heat waves can devastate coral reefs and other ecosystems – and these too are on the increase.

LONDON, 12 August, 2019 − Heat extremes on the high seas are on the increase, with ocean heat waves disturbing ecosystems in two hemispheres and two great oceans, US scientists report.

And these same sudden rises in sea temperatures don’t just damage coral reefs, they kill the corals and start the process of reef decay, according to a separate study by Australian researchers.

Andrew Pershing of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and colleagues report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they examined data from 65 marine ecosystems over the years 1854 to 2018 to work out how frequently ocean temperatures suddenly rose to unexpected levels.

They found such deviations from the average in the Arctic, North Atlantic, eastern Pacific and off the Australian coasts. They expected to find evidence of occasional hot flushes. But they did not expect to find quite so many.

“Severe marine heatwave events can have a far more severe impact than coral bleaching – the animal dies and its underlying skeleton is all that remains”

“Across the 65 ecosystems we examined, we expected about six or seven of them would experience these ‘surprises’ each year,” Dr Pershing said. “Instead, we’ve seen an average of 12 ecosystems experiencing these warming events each year over the past seven years, including a high of 23 ‘surprises’ in 2016.”

Intense and sudden changes in sea temperatures affect crustaceans, algae, corals, molluscs and many millions of humans who depend on the oceans for income. And a new study by researchers from Australian universities reports that even a rise of 0.5°C is reflected in deaths during an outbreak of coral bleaching.

Corals live in symbiosis with algae: ocean warming periodically disturbs this normally beneficial relationship. The coral animals evert (turn out) the algae and once-lurid reefs will bleach, and become more vulnerable to disease.

Corals support the world’s richest ocean ecosystems so such changes are a challenge, both to the survival of biodiversity and to local incomes from the tourism linked to the beauty of the reefs.

Very warm water

“What we are seeing is that severe marine heatwave events can have a far more severe impact than coral bleaching: the water temperatures are so warm that that the coral animal doesn’t bleach – in terms of a loss of its symbiosis – the animal dies and its underlying skeleton is all that remains,” said Tracy Ainsworth of the University of New South Wales.

The researchers report in the journal Current Biology that they used computer tomography scanning techniques to explore the marine destruction. In 2016, more than 30% of the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef experienced temperatures higher than those in which corals can survive.

“We find that the skeleton is immediately overgrown by rapid growth of algae and bacteria,” said Bill Leggat of the University of Newcastle, a co-author.

“We show that this process is devastating not just for the animal tissue but also for the skeleton that is left behind, which is rapidly eroded and weakened.” − Climate News Network