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Asian coral die-off could be worst ever; Is climate change to blame?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A massive coral bleaching event in Southeast Asian reefs in the Indian and Pacific oceans is the worst coral die-off since 1998, and possibly the worst science has ever observed, says Andrew Baird of the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

Bleaching occurs when environmental factors stress the living organisms residing within coral reefs, causing them to either leave their reef structures or die. The reefs, which turn white, or are bleached, become unable to support the myriad biodiversity that rely on them for food or habitat.

The coral die-off is afflicting reefs in waters bounded by the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Included is the Coral Triangle, an area in the Pacific between Indonesia and the Solomon Islands that supports the greatest volume of marine biodiversity in the world, earning it the nickname the “Amazon rainforest” of the oceans. The Coral Triangle alone represents 5.7 million square kilometers of pelagic territory.

Throughout the region of the die-off, “around 80 percent of Acropora colonies and 50 percent of colonies from other species have died since the outbreak began in May this year,” Baird said in a prepared release.

The cause of this massive bleaching event? According to a release from ARC, “a large pool of superhot [sic]” water…swept into the eastern Indian Ocean region several months ago, shocking the corals and causing them to shed the symbiotic algae that nourish them.” The warmer-than-normal water started at the surface of the ocean, where temperatures peaked in May 2010 at levels 4 degrees Celsius above the long-term average for the area.

Baird blames climate change for putting the coral in hot water. “My colleagues and I have high confidence these successive ocean-warming episodes, which exceed the normal tolerance range of warm-water corals, are driven by human-induced global warming,” he said. “They underline that the planet is already taking heavy hits from climate change—and will continue to do so unless we can reduce carbon emissions very quickly. They also show this is not just about warmer temperatures, it is also threatening the livelihoods of tens of millions of people, and potentially the stability of our region,” he adds.

Baird says the affected colonies could shrink in size from 50 to 90 percent, devastating the biodiversity that depends on them as well as local fishing and tourism industries.

Photo: Reefs of Pulau Weh—before, during and after the bleaching event. (a) April 18, 2009; (b) May 31, 2010; and (c) July 26, 2010

Credit: [Left to right]: R. Graham, N. Fadli, Y. Herdiana. Courtesy of ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies





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  1. 1. candide 1:24 pm 10/22/2010

    We (humans) don’t need coral. We don’t need whales. We don’t need plankton, fish, forests, diversity of species, ice caps, winter, clean energy, ozone, on and on and on.

    If you believe that, I have a bridge for sale…

    Link to this
  2. 2. Spin-oza 4:47 pm 10/22/2010

    I remain amused by the PC language for what any rational person knows is anthropomorphic GLOBAL WARMING… as "climate change". How innocuous… I mean really… the climate, she’s ALWAYS changin’, right bucko? SO what’s the big deal/

    Uh… the big deal is I think we are on-track for the warmed year EVAH recorded… and this report is just one of MANY signaling possible irreversible and escalating short-term warming, which wiil wreak havoc on the dimwitted, short-sighted, bloated, unsustainable human population.

    WE can either change our collective ways… or far more likely, Nature will surely thin our herd with its very heavy boot-print upon Mother Earth… and it won’t be pretty (cue the Haiti and sub-saharan African tapes). Science doesn’t refer the the "web o’ life" without reason. Too many of the strands have broken… the canary in the mine has stopped singin’… but the lemmings in the pews just keep prayin’. Sheesh!

    Link to this
  3. 3. maui.medicine 9:36 am 10/23/2010

    i’ll buy that bridge that nowhere… then send the deniers across it to their nowhere destination. blessings to you, truth & mother nature.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Bill Crofut 10:17 am 10/23/2010

    As one of the lemmings in the pew, it’s my understanding that (1) Ted Turner has publicly stated his wish for a 90% reduction in human population, (2) Mr. Turner has donated 1 billion dollars to the U.N. and (3) funding for anthropogenic global warming/climate change research has been provided by the U.N. Is there a connection? It seems to me unlikely that Turner would make such a sizable donation to an organization whose members differed with him philosophically.

    The late Prof. Stephen Jay Gould chided creationists because Biblical Creation is allegedly unfalsifiable. Using the falsifiability criterion established by science philosopher Karl Popper, is the assertion of anthropogenic global warming falsifiable? If it is, what is/are the detail(s)?
    Is there a funding source available for a climate scientist whose goal is to challenge the assertion of anthropogenic global warming?

    Link to this
  5. 5. EastwoodDC 6:37 pm 10/23/2010

    "Is there a funding source available for a climate scientist whose goal is to challenge the assertion of anthropogenic global warming?"

    You mean, a source other than ExxonMobile Corp.?
    http://www.seattlepi.com/national/124642_warming02.html

    or Occidental Petroleum?
    http://www.uuworld.org/news/articles/172428.shtml

    Many of these guys seem to have found funding. A bit of digging could turn up the sources.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_scientists_opposing_the_mainstream_scientific_assessment_of_global_warming

    Link to this
  6. 6. candide 7:06 pm 10/23/2010

    You forgot the $Billionaire Koch brothers – spending, conservatively, many tens of millions of dollars to counter scientific evidence:

    http://www.inpropriapersona.com/2010/03/does-the-funding-of-anti-climate-change-groups-by-koch-industries-invalidate-their-position/
    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2010/4/6/231614/7583

    And "conservative" think tanks:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_C._Marshall_Institute

    And various other "oil tycoons":
    http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/04/koch-industries-climate-change/

    Quick – name a billionaire scientist….
    The idea of "getting rich" from government grants is just too ludicrous to take seriously.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Bill Crofut 8:17 pm 10/23/2010

    Shame on me for not doing the research on opposing grant funding, but there does not seem to be anything in my original comment suggesting that any scientist had become a billionaire as a result of grant funding. Additionally, that doesn’t answer my inquiries on a possible Turner/U.N. connection or the Popperian criterion.

    Link to this
  8. 8. candide 9:27 am 10/24/2010

    I was not specifically (or only) answering your post when I posted that info. One of the main arguments from deniers is that Climate change is some type of conspiracy by scientists to get grants.

    Ted Turned donated his $1B to the UN in 1997. When donated it was earmarked for: "programs like refugees, cleaning up land mines, peacekeeping, UNICEF for the children, for diseases, and we’re going to have a committee that will work with a committee of the U.N. The money can only go to U.N. causes."

    Can I definitively say that every penny went only to those causes? No. But your assertions are empty and have nothing to back up your claims.

    Please check some of these links on Ted Turner, they are not all flattering but none mention anything like you allege.

    http://edition.cnn.com/US/9709/18/turner.gift/
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_Turner
    http://www.apfn.org/apfn/turner.htm

    Link to this
  9. 9. Sisko 10:55 am 10/25/2010

    Could you please site the data that leads you to believe this is the warmest year ever? The data I look at does not show the world oceans to be a their warmest levels ever. While I do agree that the world is somewhat warmer, I do not see sufficient data to conclude that any reduction in coral is due to warmer ocean. isn’t just as likely to be due to other man made causes (pollution?)

    Link to this
  10. 10. candide 11:18 am 10/25/2010

    2010 is not over yet, so it __could__ turn out to be the warmest year on record, we shall see.

    Meanwhile 2009, the last full year recorded, was the warmest year on record, according to NASA, the last decade was the warmest on record also.

    "NASA Research Finds Last Decade was Warmest on Record, 2009 One of Warmest Years

    WASHINGTON — A new analysis of global surface temperatures by NASA scientists finds the past year was tied for the second warmest since 1880. In the Southern Hemisphere, 2009 was the warmest year on record.

    Although 2008 was the coolest year of the decade because of a strong La Nina that cooled the tropical Pacific Ocean, 2009 saw a return to a near-record global temperatures as the La Nina diminished, according to the new analysis by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York. The past year was a small fraction of a degree cooler than 2005, the warmest on record, putting 2009 in a virtual tie with a cluster of other years –1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, and 2007 — for the second warmest on record.

    <snip> …"

    http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2010/jan/HQ_10-017_Warmest_temps.html

    While the decline of coral cannot be exclusively blamed on warmer, or more acidic oceans, those two factors certainly play a role – along with pollution and other man-made causes, as you posted.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Sisko 1:10 pm 10/25/2010

    Candidate- A quick check shows differently. 2005 was the warmest year, followed by 1998, then 2003, 2002, 2006…and then 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instrumental_temperature_record

    But let’s not facts get in the way of a good theory or rant

    Link to this
  12. 12. Bill Crofut 9:17 am 10/26/2010

    candide,

    Dr. Chameides also took me to task for my proposed Turner/U.N. connection but not because it’s an empty claim:
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=whos-who-in-climate&sc=DD_20100716

    The sources of opposing funding on the part of oil conglomerates and billionaires does not address my originally-stated concern. For example, the U.N., through the IPCC, has funded research that seems to focus exclusively on the allegation of anthropogenic global warming/climate change. The same is true of the NSF: Press Releases 10-194 and 10-198,
    http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=117915&WT.mc_id=USNSF_51&WT.mc_ev=click
    and
    http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=117917&WT.mc_id=USNSF_51&WT.mc_ev=click

    Is there U.N./IPCC or NSF research funding available to anyone who would propose to challenge anthropogenic global warming/climate change? If the IPCC reports are truly scientific, it seems to me only reasonable that they should be subjected to the falsifiability criterion established by Dr. Popper. Is the issue of anthropogenic global warming/climate change falsifiable?

    Link to this
  13. 13. Chris G 1:44 pm 10/31/2010

    Bill,
    It’s readily falsifiable. All you have to do is prove that Planck’s Law is basically wrong, or that CO2, and other GHGs, do not absorb and emit in the same wave band that the earth emits.

    Another alternative would be to fully explain the warming trend over the last century without including the increase in GHGs as a contributing factor.

    Guaranteed fame and fortune goes to the first person capable of doing that. No one has.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Bill Crofut 9:44 am 11/6/2010

    Chris,

    Thank you for responding to my challenge. After posing it in several other venues, no one else has apparently taken it seriously even though it was Dr. Popper, not myself, who established the criterion.

    Still, it seems to me you have not established falsifiability but, rather, restated several facts that have not, in my experience, been challenged by any anthropogenic global warming sceptic.

    Let me share with you two examples that seem to me to fly in the face of the falsifiability criterion:

    For example, how does it square with allegedly causing cooling?

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=what-does-winter-weather-reveal-abo-10-02-11&sc=DD_20100212

    As the alleged cause of ice loss in the Arctic, how does it square with recent ice growth in the Antarctic?

    http://www.gatech.edu/newsroom/release.html?nid=60442

    Link to this

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