Saturday, November 20, 2010

Coral bleaching goes from bad to worse

Melissa Gaskill in Nature News: The year 2005 was devastating for coral, with unusually warm waters in the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea causing one of the worst bleaching events on record. Researchers who monitored the event have now catalogued the full extent of the disaster — and they warn that 2010 is shaping up to be even worse.

Mark Eakin, coordinator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch programme based in Silver Springs, Maryland, and his colleagues performed an extensive coral survey to record the effects of unseasonally high temperatures on reefs in 2005. The project involved more than 250 collaborators from 22 countries, and compared satellite data with field surveys to determine how heat stress affected the coral in different places.

In a paper published this week in PLoS ONE1, the researchers report the most severe coral bleaching ever recorded in the Caribbean: more than 80% of the corals surveyed were bleached, and at many sites more than 40% died. "Severe, widespread bleaching spells trouble for tropical marine ecosystems in general," says Eakin.

The researchers also saw bleaching in places where it hadn't been recorded before, for example at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico. They also saw the first mass bleaching of elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) in the Virgin Islands National Park. This coral was previously dominant in that reef ecosystem, but has been on the US Endangered Species Act list since 2006.…

A brittle star collecting coral eggs in the Flower Garden Banks, shot by Emma Hickerson

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