Researchers at the ARC Center for Coral Studies in Queensland, northeastern Australia, estimated the coral communities and their colony size along the length of the Great Barrier Reef between 1995 and 2017 and that almost all coral populations were declining, they said on Tuesday.
The Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef in the world, covers nearly 133,000 square miles and is home to more than 1,500 species, 411 species of hard corals and dozens of other species.
“We have found that the number of small, medium and large corals in the Great Barrier Reef has declined by more than 50% since the 1990s,” said Terry Hughes, renowned associate professor at the ARC Center for Excellence in Coral Studies. In a statement.
Reefs are fundamental to the health of marine ecosystems – without them, ecosystems collapse and marine life dies.
The Great Barrier Reef covers approximately 133,000 square miles.
Franோois Cohier / VWPix / Universal Images Team / Getty Images
Coral population sizes are also considered important for the reproductive capacity of the coral.
“There are millions of small, baby corals in a vibrant coral population, and there are many bigger ones – big uncles who produce most larvae,” said Andy Dietzal, a doctoral student at the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Studies. In a statement.
“Our results show the Great Barrier Reef’s resilience – and its regression – is being compromised compared to the past because there are fewer children and larger breeding adults,” he said.
Population decline occurred in both shallow and deep water coral species, experts found, but branch and table-shaped corals – providing habitat for fish – were badly affected by mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, triggered by record temperatures.
The authors of the report warned that climate change is causing an improvement in the frequency of “reef disturbances”.
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The main driver for coral whitening is warm sea temperature, which is stressful for water when corals turn white. Bleaching does not kill the coral immediately, but if the temperature is too high, the coral will eventually die, destroying the natural habitat of many species of marine life.
The study, conducted on Tuesday, found a steep decline in coral colonies in the northern and central Great Barrier Reef following mass flooding events in 2016 and 2017.
The Great Barrier Reef has experienced numerous mass bleaching events over the past five years, and experts say the southern part of the reef is also expected to reach record temperatures in early 2020.
“We thought the Great Barrier Reef was protected by its sheer size – but our results show that even the world’s largest and relatively well-protected reef system is increasingly compromised and in decline,” Hughes said.
The authors of the report warn that climate change is giving a boost to the frequency of “reef disturbances” such as ocean heat waves.
“There is no time to lose – we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible,” the authors of the report warned in a study published in the Royal Society’s Process.
Helen Reagan of CNN contributed to this report.