We're cooking the planet, thanks to El Nino, the warming weather system that's killing coral reefs in the Pacific at an unprescidented rate.
Even as recently as early March, Australian coral reef scientists still hoped that the legendary Great Barrier Reef (GBR) would get off lightly in the current El Niño, the climate phenomenon that brings unusually warm water to the equatorial Pacific, stressing and often killing corals. No such luck. On 20 March, the GBR Marine Park Authority in Townsville, Australia, reported that divers were finding extensive coral bleaching—the loss of symbiotic algae—in remote northern areas of the reef. Many sections were already dead.
Subsequent flyover surveys have confirmed an unfolding disaster: “Only four reefs out of 520 [observed] had no bleaching,” says Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Townsville, who personally checked the northernmost 1000 kilometers of the 2300-kilometer reef system over 4 days last week. “It was the saddest reef trip of my career.”
The GBR joins a lengthening list of reefs bleached because of the El Niño that started in late 2014. It is now the longest bleaching event ever, and this El Niño, which helped make 2015 the planet's hottest year on record, “isn’t even close to being over,” says Mark Eakin, a coral reef ecologist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in College Park, Maryland. Even though the El Niño is now weakening, its lingering effects could cause bleaching for another year, he adds.
Tragic does not begin to describe what is happening here as we speak.
Seen below is the temperature gradient in the Pacific circa 2014 - 16.