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XL-Catlin-Seaview-Survey-American-Samoa-5A before and after image of the bleaching in American Samoa. The first image was taken in December 2014. The second image was taken in February 2015 when the XL Catlin Seaview Survey responded to a NOAA coral bleaching alert / Credit: XL CATLIN SEAVIEW SURVEY

El Niño May Damage Coral Reefs Permanently

Scientists warn that coral reefs around the globe face the largest die-off in history with El Niño on its way 

Leading scientists have confirmed that large-scale global coral bleaching is inevitable as a new El Niño event is underway. This is expected to be the third El Niño that will have caused significantly high levels of global bleaching in recent decades.   

Coral reefs have already suffered significant bleaching due to ocean acidification and warming sea temperatures, but researchers fear that global reefs may be damaged permanently over the next few months. 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an area of more than 12,000 square kilometres (4,500 square miles) spanning from the Caribbean, across the Pacific and the Indian Ocean is at risk. 

A consortium including scientists of NOAA, the XL Catlin Seaview Survey, The University of Queensland in Australia, and Reef Check fears that the 2015 El Niño might be the most devastating yet and may extend well into 2016.

XL-Catlin-Seaview-Survey-American-Samoa-6A marine biologist assesses the bleaching at Airport Reef in American Samoa / Credit: XL CATLIN SEAVIEW SURVEY

US tropical regions, such as Hawaii, escaped the 1998 and 2010 El Niño events, but predictions indicate that the Hawaiian archipelago will be impacted particularly hard this year.

'This is only the third time we’ve seen what we would refer to as a global bleaching event,' Mark Eakin, head of NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch, explains. 'What really has us concerned is this event has been going on for over a year and is likely to last another year.'

'The coral bleaching and disease, brought on by climate change and coupled with events like the current El Niño, are the largest and most pervasive threats to coral reefs around the world,' Eakin said. 

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, the Survey’s chief scientist from the Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland warned that we face more than just environmental challenges.

'With hundreds of millions of people relying on fisheries and reefs for sustenance, the repercussions of a global coral bleaching event could be potentially disastrous,' he said.

All parties agree that research into the cause and the effects of extreme weather events is crucial in coming years.

Coral-bleaching-7A fire coral in Bermuda. The one on the left is a healthy while the one on the right is completely bleached / Credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey

A recent report by the BBC that estimates the financial values of natural resources puts the value of coral reefs in the region of $9.9 trillion. Among other things, reefs protect coastlines from storms, are a haven for fish life and capture carbon emissions.

'A coral reef bleaching event at such scale will require significant coordination efforts from all the parties involved to ensure the quick collection of the data we need to assess the situation,' said Dr Gregor Hodgson, founder and executive director of Reef Check. 'Only by accurately monitoring and analyzing this data will we be able to devise effective plans to properly safeguard these natural wonders.'

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