Coral Reefs Killed By Global Warming Come Back To Life Faster Than Predicted

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Michael Bastasch Contributor
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Scientists declared Coral Castles dead just 13 years ago, and gave the South Pacific reef little chance of coming back anytime soon.

Scientists were later stunned to see Coral Castles teeming with life during a 2015 dive, despite that year meteoroligists declaring that year the hottest on record globally. The New York Times reported divers “were greeted with a vista of bright greens and purples — unmistakable signs of life.”

“Everything looked just magnificent,” said Jan Witting, the dive’s lead scientist who works at the Sea Education Association, told NYT.

“Last year, the whole place was holding its breath,” Witting said. “The whole ocean’s in bloom this year.”

Witting’s findings bewildered scientists who have been predicting the demise of coral reefs for decades. Coral reefs are undergoing a massive bleaching due to high ocean temperatures from global warming, according to scientists, but now scientists are finding some reefs to be way more resilient than predicted.

Randi Rotjan, the lead scientist who tracked the coral expedition from Boston’s New England Aquarium, hopes to fill in the research gaps about coral reefs adapt to warming waters. She wants to see if Coral Castles is an isolated situation or something bigger.

Witting’s 2015 dive came after scientists found reefs in the Rangiroa lagoon in French Polynesia had rebounded just 15 years after being devastated by the incredibly strong 1998 El Nino warming event.

“Our projections were completely wrong,” marine biologist Peter Mumby told BBC News in 2014. “Sometimes it is really nice to be proven wrong as a scientist, and this was a perfect example of that.”

Mumby’s team initially predicted it would take Rangiroa reefs 100 years to fully recover, but it only took the reef 15 years after El Nino hit it hard. At the time, 1998 was also declared the hottest year on record by climatologists.

The 1998 El Nino wiped out 16 percent of the world’s reefs due to warmer ocean temperatures, especially in the tropical Pacific Ocean. Scientists predict bleaching will get worse and eventually kill off many of the world’s reefs in the coming decades.

But scientists are learning coral reef survival is more complicated than just warm oceans. Human activities, local environments and sea level also influence how reefs weather bleaching events.

A reef recovery was observed at reefs of the Pacific island of Palau. A scientific “survey completed just three years after the 1998 bleaching event showed more coral had recovered on reefs within protected bays and on deep slopes,” BBC reported.

Researchers believe the reefs resisted bleaching because orals that hang out in shady zones will escape the scorching combination” of heat and light, making them more likely to survive.

An incredibly strong El Nino hit the Pacific in late 2015, spurring another round of coral bleaching. As ocean temperature rose, scientists increased their cried about global warming-driven bleaching.

Scientists and environmentalists often point to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef as an example of how man-made global warming is devastating the world’s reefs. In April, 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef was bleached, said scientists.

Coral ecologist Laurie Raymundo literally cried after seeing bleached coral near Guam.

“I consider myself to be fairly objective and logical about science,” Raymundo wrote on Facebook. “But sometimes that approach fails me.”

“Today, for the first time in the 50 years I’ve been in the water, I cried for an hour, right into my mask, as I witnessed the extent to which our lovely Tumon Bay corals were bleaching and dying,” Raymundo wrote.

But even the Great Barrier Reef has its bright spots. Researchers found coral was recovering in three lagoons off Queensland, Australia after ocean acidity was reduced.

“It’s encouraging, because if we do the right things, health might restore in a pretty responsive manner,” Rebecca Albright, a postdoctoral scientist at Stanford University and lead researcher, told NYT.

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