Great Barrier Reef hit by another ‘widespread’ bleaching event

(ORDO NEWS) — The Great Barrier Reef has again experienced “widespread” bleaching, authorities said Friday, as warmer-than-average ocean temperatures in northeast Australia threaten an already struggling World Heritage site.

Observation flights over the reef have revealed heat stress damage ranging from mild to severe bleaching across a 2,300-kilometre (1,243-mile) coral network, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said.

“Bleaching has been found throughout the marine park – it is widespread but intermittent in many regions, with effects ranging from minor to severe,” the administration’s weekly update said.

Last week, sea temperatures throughout the marine park hovered between 0.5 and 2 degrees Celsius above average, and between 2 and 4 degrees above average in the far north and coastal areas.

“The reefs in the Townsville area have been hardest hit. There are also reports of early mortality where heat stress was most severe.”

The news comes ahead of a UNESCO trip to the reef to inspect the site’s condition in order to make a decision on its heritage listing, which is due in June.

Bleaching occurs when healthy corals are stressed by fluctuating ocean temperatures, causing them to shed algae living in their tissues, stripping them of their vibrant colors.

Since 1997, the Great Barrier Reef has experienced five mass bleaching events caused by unusually warm sea temperatures, leaving many affected corals unable to survive.

Several cyclones have also hit the reef as climate change brings more extreme weather. Crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks are also eating away at corals.

While the latest changes are not yet classified as mass bleaching, the Australian Marine Conservation Society called the report “catastrophic news”, especially during the La Nina weather event, which is commonly associated with cooler ocean temperatures.

“This shows that our reef is under constant pressure from global warming,” said the society’s campaign manager, Lissa Schindler.

A healthy reef can recover from coral bleaching, but that takes time. “More frequent offshore heatwaves, caused primarily by burning coal and gas, mean it won’t get that time.”

Australia’s Conservative government announced new funding earlier this year in hopes of preventing the climate-damaged reef from being delisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

When the UN previously threatened to downgrade the reef’s World Heritage rating in 2015, Australia launched the Reef 2050 plan and poured billions of dollars into its defense.

These measures are believed to have stopped the rate of decline, but much of the world’s largest reef system has already been damaged.

A recent study showed that bleaching has affected 98 percent of the reef since 1998, leaving only a small portion untouched.

The Great Barrier Reef – the world’s largest living structure visible from space – was listed in 1981 for its “superb natural beauty” and vast biodiversity.

However, the list is not permanent and properties may be downgraded or even removed entirely on the recommendation of a UN body.

While listing “threatened” is not considered a sanction – some countries list their sites to attract international attention and help save them – others see it as dishonorable.

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