Climate change disables coral bleaching protection on the Great Barrier Reef

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Science  15 Apr 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6283, pp. 338-342
DOI: 10.1126/science.aac7125

Bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef

The Australian Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is one of Earth's most extraordinary natural wonders, but it is vulnerable to climate change. Ainsworth et al. have tracked the effects of three decades of increasing heat stress on coral organisms. In the past, pulses of elevated temperatures that presaged hot seasons stimulated the acclimation of coral organisms and resilience to thermal stress. More recently, temperature hikes have been severe and precluded acclimation. The result has been increasing bleaching and death; notably extreme during 2016 in the wake of El Niño.

Science, this issue p. 338


Coral bleaching events threaten the sustainability of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Here we show that bleaching events of the past three decades have been mitigated by induced thermal tolerance of reef-building corals, and this protective mechanism is likely to be lost under near-future climate change scenarios. We show that 75% of past thermal stress events have been characterized by a temperature trajectory that subjects corals to a protective, sub-bleaching stress, before reaching temperatures that cause bleaching. Such conditions confer thermal tolerance, decreasing coral cell mortality and symbiont loss during bleaching by over 50%. We find that near-future increases in local temperature of as little as 0.5°C result in this protective mechanism being lost, which may increase the rate of degradation of the GBR.

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