Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has suffered irreversible damage following a “catastrophic die-off" of coral in 2016 due to a marine heatwave, scientists say.
The Unesco World Heritage Site off the coast of Queensland lost almost a third of its coral during an unprecedented rising water temperatures.
Global warming contributed to sea surface temperatures over the summer months in 2016 rising to the hottest on record on the reef, resulting in severe coral bleaching.
Scientists estimate that 30 per cent of the reef’s coral died in the heatwave from March to November 2016, suggesting global warming is decimating the 1,400-mile ecosystem in north-east Australia.
Corals “began to die immediately on reefs where the accumulated heat exposure exceeded a critical threshold,” a study published in the journal Nature said.
Terry Hughes, the report’s co-author and head of the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at Australia’s James Cook University, fears the reef will not survive unless nations tackle climate change by drastically cutting carbon emissions.
“We’ve now seen four bleaching events (1998, 2002, 2016 and 2017) on the Great Barrier Reef with one degree (Celsius) of global average warming,” he said.
“We are on a pathway where we are committed to a different Barrier Reef. If we continue with business-as-usual emissions, then I don’t think the reef can survive.”
Professor Hughes previously compared the bleaching to an “ongoing, slow-motion train wreck”, warning: “This will change the Great Barrier Reef forever.”
The study added the that the death of corals after bleaching represents a fundamental challenge to the long-term future of the Great Barrier Reef.
“The coral die-off has caused radical changes in the mix of coral species on hundreds of individual reefs where mature and diverse reef communities are being transformed into more degraded systems, with just a few tough species remaining," said Andrew Baird, another of the report’s authors.
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