This article's factual accuracy may be compromised due to out-of-date information
. (May 2017)
Coral bleaching occurs when coral polyps expel algae that lives inside their tissues. Normally, coral polyps live in an endosymbiotic relationship with the algae and that relationship is crucial for the coral and hence for the health of the whole reef. Bleached corals continue to live. But as the algae provide the coral with up to 90% of its energy, after expelling the algae the coral begins to starve. Above-average sea water temperatures caused by global warming have been identified as a leading cause for coral bleaching worldwide. Between 2014 and 2016, the longest global bleaching events ever were recorded. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, these bleaching events killed coral on an unprecedented scale. In 2016, bleaching hit 90 percent of coral on the Great Barrier Reef and killed between 29 and 50 percent of the reef's coral. In 2017, the bleaching further expanded to areas of the reef that were previously spared, such as the central one.
The corals that form the great reef ecosystems of tropical seas depend upon a symbiotic relationship with algae-like single-celled flagellate protozoa called zooxanthellae that live within their tissues and give the coral its coloration. The zooxanthellae provide the coral with nutrients through photosynthesis, a crucial factor in the clear and nutrient-poor tropical waters. In exchange, the coral provide the zooxanthellae with the carbon dioxide and ammonium needed for photosynthesis. Negative environmental conditions thwart the coral's ability to provide for the zooxanthellae's needs. To ensure short-term survival, the coral-polyp then expels the zooxanthellae. This leads to a lighter or completely white appearance, hence the term "bleached". As the zooxanthellae provide for up to 90% of the coral's energy needs through photosynthesis, after expelling, the coral begins to starve.
Healthy coral at left and bleached, but still living, coral to right
Coral reefs can survive short-term disturbances, but if the conditions that lead to the expulsion of the zooxanthellae persist, the reef's chances of survival diminish. In order to recover from bleaching, the zooxanthellae have to re-enter the tissues of the coral polyps and re-start photosynthesis to sustain the coral as a whole and the ecosystem that depends on it. If the coral polyps die of starvation after bleaching, they will decay. The hard coral species will then leave behind their calcium carbonate skeletons, which will be taken over by algae, effectively blocking coral re-growth. Eventually, the coral skeletons will erode, causing the reef structure to collapse.
Coral bleaching may be caused by a number of factors. While localized triggers lead to localized bleaching, the large scale coral bleaching events of the recent years have been triggered by increased sea surface temperatures. Coral reefs located in warm, shallow water with low water flow have been more affected than reefs located in areas with higher water flow.
List of triggers
Bleached coral - partially overgrown with algae
Mass bleaching events
coral (foreground) and normal colony (background), Keppel Islands, Great Barrier Reef
Elevated sea water temperatures are the main cause of mass bleaching events. Sixty major episodes of coral bleaching have occurred between 1979 and 1990, with the associated coral mortality affecting reefs in every part of the world. In 2016, the longest coral bleaching event was recorded.
Factors that influence the outcome of a bleaching event include stress-resistance which reduces bleaching, tolerance to the absence of zooxanthellae, and how quickly new coral grows to replace the dead. Due to the patchy nature of bleaching, local climatic conditions such as shade or a stream of cooler water can reduce bleaching incidence. Coral and zooxanthellae health and genetics also influence bleaching.
Large coral colonies such as Porites are able to withstand extreme temperature shocks, while fragile branching corals such Acropora are far more susceptible to stress following a temperature change. Corals consistently exposed to low stress levels may be more resistant to bleaching.
Two images of the Great Barrier Reef
showing that the warmest water (top picture) coincides with the coral reefs (lower picture), setting up conditions that can cause coral bleaching
In the 2012-2040 period, coral reefs are expected to experience more frequent bleaching events. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sees this as the greatest threat to the world's reef systems.
Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef along the coast of Australia experienced bleaching events in 1980, 1982, 1992, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, and 2016. Some locations suffered severe damage, with up to 90% mortality. The most widespread and intense events occurred in the summers of 1998 and 2002, with 42% and 54% respectively of reefs bleached to some extent, and 18% strongly bleached. However coral losses on the reef between 1995 and 2009 were largely offset by growth of new corals. An overall analysis of coral loss found that coral populations on the Great Barrier Reef had declined by 50.7% from 1985 to 2012, but with only about 10% of that decline attributable to bleaching, and the remaining 90% caused about equally by tropical cyclones and by predation by crown-of-thorns starfishes.
The IPCC's moderate warming scenarios (B1 to A1T, 2 °C by 2100, IPCC, 2007, Table SPM.3, p. 13) forecast that corals on the Great Barrier Reef are very likely to regularly experience summer temperatures high enough to induce bleaching.
Major bleaching occurred in Hawaiian coral reefs in 1996 and in 2002. In 2014, biologists from the University of Queensland observed the first mass bleaching event, and attributed it to The Blob. In 2014 and 2015, a survey in Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve on Oahu found 47% of the corals suffering from coral bleaching and close to 10% of the corals dying.
According to a 2017 Japanese government report, almost 75% of Japan's largest coral reef in Okinawa has died from bleaching.
Coral reef provinces have been permanently damaged by warm sea temperatures, most severely in the Indian Ocean. Up to 90% of coral cover has been lost in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Tanzania and in the Seychelles during the massive 1997-98 bleaching event.
More than 60% of the coral in the Maldives has suffered from bleaching in 2016.
Thailand experienced a severe mass bleaching in 2010 which affected 70% of the coral in the Andaman Sea. Between 30% and 95% of the bleached coral died.
In South Florida, a 2016 survey of large corals from Key Biscayne to Fort Lauderdale found that about 66% of the corals were dead or reduced to less than half of their live tissue.
Coral in the south Red Sea does not bleach despite summer water temperatures up to 34 °C (93 °F).
Economic and political impact
According to Brian Skoloff of The Christian Science Monitor, "If the reefs vanished, experts say, hunger, poverty and political instability could ensue." Since countless sea life depend on the reefs for shelter and protection from predators, the extinction of the reefs would ultimately create a domino effect that would trickle down to the many human societies that depend on those fish for food and livelihood. There has been a 44% decline over the last 20 years in the Florida Keys, and up to 80% in the Caribbean alone.
Coral reefs provide various ecosystem services, one of which is being a natural fishery, as many frequently consumed commercial fish spawn or live out their juvenile lives in coral reefs around the tropics. Thus, reefs are a popular fishing site and are an important source of income for fishers, especially small, local fisheries. As coral reef habitat decreases due to bleaching, reef associated fish populations also decrease, which affects fishing opportunities. A model from one study by Speers et al. calculated direct losses to fisheries from decreased coral cover to be around $49 - $69 billion, if human societies continue to emit high levels of greenhouse gases. But, these losses could be reduced for a consumer surplus benefit of about $14 - $20 billion, if societies chose to emit a lower level of greenhouse gases instead. These economic losses also have important political implications, as they fall disproportionately on developing countries where the reefs are located, namely in Southeast Asia and around the Indian Ocean. It would cost more for countries in these areas to respond to coral reef loss as they would need to turn to different sources of income and food, in addition to losing other ecosystem services such as ecotourism. A study completed by Chen et al. suggested that the commercial value of reefs decreases by almost 4% every time coral cover decreases by 1% because of losses in ecotourism and other potential outdoor recreational activities.
Coral reefs also act as a protective barrier for coastlines by reducing wave impact, which lowers the damage from storms, erosions, and flooding. Countries that lose this natural protection will lose more money because of the increased susceptibility of storms. This indirect cost, combined with the lost revenue in tourism, will result in enormous economic effects.
Monitoring reef sea surface temperature
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) monitors for bleaching "hot spots", areas where sea surface temperature rises 1 °C or more above the long-term monthly average. This system detected the worldwide 1998 bleaching event, that corresponded to the 1997-98 El Niño event.
Changes in ocean chemistry
Increasing ocean acidification due to rises in carbon dioxide levels exacerbates the bleaching effects of thermal stress. Acidification affects the corals' ability to create calcareous skeletons, essential to their survival. This is because ocean acidification decreases the amount of carbonate ion in the water, making it more difficult for corals to absorb the calcium carbonate they need for the skeleton. As a result, the resilience of reefs goes down, while it becomes easier for them to erode and dissolve. In addition, the increase in CO2 allows herbivore overfishing and nutrification to change coral-dominated ecosystems to algal-dominated ecosystems. A recent study from the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future found that with the combination of acidification and temperature rises, the levels of CO2 could become too high for coral to survive in as little as 50 years.
Infectious bacteria of the species Vibrio shiloi are the bleaching agent of Oculina patagonica in the Mediterranean Sea, causing this effect by attacking the zooxanthellae.V. shiloi is infectious only during warm periods. Elevated temperature increases the virulence of V. shiloi, which then become able to adhere to a beta-galactoside-containing receptor in the surface mucus of the host coral.V. shiloi then penetrates the coral's epidermis, multiplies, and produces both heat-stable and heat-sensitive toxins, which affect zooxanthellae by inhibiting photosynthesis and causing lysis.
During the summer of 2003, coral reefs in the Mediterranean Sea appeared to gain resistance to the pathogen, and further infection was not observed. The main hypothesis for the emerged resistance is the presence of symbiotic communities of protective bacteria living in the corals. The bacterial species capable of lysing V. shiloi had not been identified as of 2011.
In 2010, researchers at Penn State discovered corals that were thriving while utilizing an unusual species of symbiotic algae in the warm waters of the Andaman Sea located in the Indian Ocean. Normal zooxanthellae cannot withstand temperatures as high as in that location, so this finding was unexpected. This gives researchers hope that with rising temperatures due to global warming, coral reefs will develop tolerance for different species of symbiotic algae that are resistant to high temperature, and can live within the reefs.
Recovery and macroalgal regime shifts
After corals experience a bleaching event to increased temperature stress some reefs are able to return to their original, pre-bleaching state. Reefs either recover from bleaching, where they are recolonized by zooxanthellae, or they experience a regime shift, where previously flourishing coral reefs are taken over by thick layers of macroalgae. This inhibits further coral growth because the algae produces antifouling compounds to deter settlement and competes with corals for space and light. As a result, macroalgae forms stable communities that make it difficult for corals to grow again. Reefs will then be more susceptible to other issues, such as declining water quality and removal of herbivore fish, because coral growth is weaker. Discovering what causes reefs to be resilient or recover from bleaching events is of primary importance because it helps inform conservation efforts and protect coral more effectively.
Corals have shown to be resilient to short-term disturbances. Recovery has been shown in after storm disturbance and crown of thorns starfish invasions. Fish species tend to fare better following reef disturbance than coral species as corals show limited recovery and reef fish assemblages have shown little change as a result of short-term disturbances. In contrast, fish assemblages in reefs that experience bleaching exhibit potentially damaging changes. One study by Bellwood et al. notes that while species richness, diversity, and abundance did not change, fish assemblages contained more generalist species and less coral dependent species. Responses to coral bleaching are diverse between reef fish species, based on what resources are affected. Rising sea temperature and coral bleaching do not directly impact adult fish mortality, but there are many indirect consequences of both. Coral-associated fish populations tend to be in decline due to habitat loss; however, some herbivorous fish populations have seen a drastic increase due to the increase of algae colonization on dead coral. Studies note that better methods are needed to measure the effects of disturbance on the resilience of corals.
The lemon damselfish (Pomacentrus moluccensis
) is a coral associated species that has been shown to decline dramatically following coral bleaching.
Until recently, the factors mediating the recovery of coral reefs from bleaching were not well studied. Research by Graham et al. (2005) studied 21 reefs around Seychelles in the Indo-Pacific in order to document the long-term effects of coral bleaching. After the loss of more than 90% of corals due to bleaching in 1998 around 50% of the reefs recovered and roughly 40% of the reefs experienced regime shifts to macroalgae dominated compositions. After an assessment of factors influencing the probability of recovery, the study identified five major factors: density of juvenile corals, initial structural complexity, water depth, biomass of herbivorous fishes, and nutrient conditions on the reef. Overall, resilience was seen most in coral reef systems that were structurally complex and in deeper water.
The ecological roles and functional groups of species also play a role in the recovery of regime shifting potential in reef systems. Coral reefs are affected by bioeroding, scraping, and grazing fish species. Bioeroding species remove dead corals, scraping species remove algae and sediment to further future growth, grazing species remove algae. The presence of each type of species can influence the ability for normal levels of coral recruitment which is an important part of coral recovery. Lowered numbers of grazing species after coral bleaching in the Caribbean has been likened to sea-urchin-dominated systems which do not undergo regime shifts to fleshy macroalgae dominated conditions.
There is always the possibility of unobservable changes, or cryptic losses or resilience, in a coral community's ability to perform ecological processes. These cryptic losses can result in unforeseen regime changes or ecological flips. More detailed methods for determining the health of coral reefs that take into account long-term changes to the coral ecosystems and better-informed conservation policies are necessary to protect coral reefs in the years to come.
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When coral experiences abnormal conditions, it releases an algae called zooxanthellae. The loss of the colorful algae causes the coral to turn white.
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