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Read These Facts About Coral Bleaching Before it's Too Late

Facts about Coral Bleaching
Bleaching poses a major threat to corals the world over. Caused by stress inducing factors like temperature rise, coral bleaching results in the symbiotic algae being expelled by corals. This results in nutrition deficiency for corals and also their bleached appearance.
Parul Solanki
Last Updated: Mar 19, 2018
Quick Fact
According to figures released by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN), between 1980 and 1997, approximately 370 observations of coral bleaching were reported globally. Whereas between 1998 and 2010, the number of reported observations increased to more than 3,700!
Imagine jumping into the ocean, armed with your mask, fins and snorkel, to watch fascinating, bright corals and instead coming face to face with dead white coral skeletons. This is not a nightmare, but an unfortunate reality. Coral bleaching caused by a number of factors, primary among which is climate change and human activity, has led to the destruction of these magnificent underwater creatures.
About Coral Reefs
When you think of coral reefs the image that springs to mind is that of brightly-colored and often weird looking underwater plants. Coral reefs or rather groups of coral polyps however, are not plants but translucent animals that are known for living in vast colonies. They are often found in warm, clear waters of tropical and subtropical countries. Corals are soft-bodied, tiny organisms that host tiny algae that live in their tissues.

These microalgae, also known as zooxanthellae, provide food to corals through carbohydrates and energy that is produced during photosynthesis, while coral polyps provide the algae with a protected environment, close to the ocean surface where they can receive a lot of sunlight. These algae are also responsible for imparting the bright beautiful color to the coral reef.
What is Coral Bleaching?
bleached coral
coral fossil
● Coral bleaching occurs as a result of a stress response. This can cause corals to shed the algae, leading to the white, skeleton-like appearance of the reef. This is vastly different from their usual brown and green appearance.
● Sometimes, rather than turning bright white, corals turn a shade of pastel yellow, pink or blue.
● Apart from the pale coloration, a bleached coral can be identified by transparent tissue with white skeleton showing through. Some may have a fluorescent appearance as well.
● Despite its sturdy appearance, corals are extremely sensitive to stressful environmental conditions like ocean acidification, changes in salinity, high UV radiation levels, and cooling or warming of the waters in which corals reside.
● One of the most common causes of coral bleaching is temperature rise due to global climate change. This is because most corals live close to their maximum thermal limits. When the temperature of water increases even by 1°C and the thermal limits are extended, the photosynthetic process of the algae is altered. This leads to the production of toxins. This is the reason that the algae needs to be expelled.
● Human induced factors like overfishing, land-based pollution and cyanide fishing can also lead to coral bleaching. A report from the World Resources Institute (WRI) in 1998, found that around 60% of coral reefs are threatened by human activity.
● If the stressful conditions prevail for a prolonged period and corals live without the algae, then they become susceptible to diseases, starvation and reduced growth rates.
● In case the stress causing factors are temporary and decrease with time, most resilient corals have the ability to recover from bleaching by regaining the symbiotic microalgae.
● Not all corals are susceptible to bleaching at the same rate. Compared to slow-growing corals, faster growing corals like Pocilloporids are more likely to suffer from coral bleaching. Some corals have fluorescent pigments that act as a shield against sunlight, changing the harsh UV rays into lower energy wavelengths.
About Mass Coral Bleaching
coral reef
bleaching coral
● When coral bleaching affects reefs on a global or mass scale, it is known as mass coral bleaching. This phenomenon has been observed and reported since 1870s. The first mass coral bleaching was recognized after the 1982-83 El Nino event on the Pacific coast of Panama. However, since the past 20 years, there has been an increase in the frequency of these events.
● According to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), the two most significant mass bleaching events occurred in 1998 and 2002, in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
● Aerial surveys by scientists at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) found that mass coral bleaching of 2002 affected around 54% of the 641 reefs observed, with 41% of offshore and 72% of inshore reefs reportedly having experienced moderate to high bleaching.
● According to Seaweb, out of the 109 countries where coral reefs are present, reef degradation has occurred in 93 countries.
● The severely damaged reefs from each of the mass bleaching events will take decades to recover. The recovery depends on young coral recruits growing on the reef and this can be quite a time-consuming process.
● While recovering, if the reefs are hit with another mass bleaching event then recovery may be prevented or slowed down further.
Mistaken Coral Bleaching
Crown of Thorn starfish
Crown-of-Thorn starfish
Healthy Fire Coral
Healthy Fire Coral
● Some corals, like the Fire Coral, have white tips. This is not be confused with bleaching where the entire coral branch is white or pastel colored. Some corals have white tips while they grow out.
● Sometimes coral diseases like White Syndrome can cause a part of the coral to appear white. Unlike bleached corals however, the diseased corals will have bands or white strips.
● The reef that has been eaten by the Crown-of-Thorn starfish (COTS) has a bleached appearance as well, but when you look closely, an absence of transparent tissue and tentacles covering the skeleton can signify COTS feeding. Moreover, when the COTS eat the reef leaves they leave behind an irregular patch of white, unlike uniform bone-white appearance of a bleached coral.
A lack of awareness and steps in conservation of reefs may increase the frequency and severity of reef bleaching. Scientists estimate that we have already lost around 10% of all reefs, and in the next 30 to 50 years will lose many more. Why is this significant? Although they cover only 1% of the world's surface, coral reefs are host to 25% of all marine life, which includes more than 1000 fish species. The degradation of coral reefs due to bleaching can impact tourism, fisheries and directly or indirectly affect a lot of people who derive food and income from them. In fact, according to the World Resources institute, destruction of 1 km. of coral can lead to an estimated loss of US$137,000-1,200,000 over a 25-year period.