Posted by Curt on 27 April, 2017 at 10:28 am. 5 comments already!

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Jim Steele:

It is puzzling why the recent 2017 publication in Nature, Global Warming And Recurrent Mass Bleaching Of Corals by Hughes et al. ignored the most critical factor affecting the 2016 severe bleaching along the northern Great Barrier Reef – the regional fall in sea level amplified by El Niño. Instead Hughes 2017 suggested the extensive bleaching was due to increased water temperatures induced by CO2 warming.

In contrast in Coral Mortality Induced by the 2015–2016 El-Niño in Indonesia: The Effect Of Rapid Sea Level Fall by Ampou 2017, Indonesian biologists had reported that a drop in sea level had bleached the upper 15 cm of the reefs before temperatures had reached NOAA’ Coral Reef Watch’s bleaching thresholds. As discussed by Ampou 2017, the drop in sea level had likely been experienced throughout much of the Coral Triangle including the northern Great Barrier Reef (GBR), and then accelerated during the El Niño. They speculated sea level fall also contributed to the bleaching during the 1998 El Niño. Consistent with the effects of sea level fall, other researchers reported bleaching in the GBR was greatest near the surface then declined rapidly with depth. Indeed if falling sea level was the main diver in 2016’s reef mortalities, and this can be tested, then most catastrophic assertions made by Hughes 2017 would be invalid.

Indeed the Great Barrier Reef had also experienced falling sea levels similar to those experienced by Indonesian reefs. Visitors to Lizard Island had reported more extreme low tides and more exposed reefs as revealed in the photograph above, which is consistent with the extremely high mortality in the Lizard Island region during the 2016 El Niño. Of course reefs are often exposed to the air at low tide, but manage to survive if the exposure is short or during the night. However as seen in tide gauge data from Cairns just south of Lizard Island, since 2010 the average low tide had dropped by ~10 to 15 cm. After previous decades of increasing sea level had permitted vertical coral growth and colonization of newly submerged coastline, that new growth was now being left high and dry during low tide. As a result shallow coral were increasingly vulnerable to deadly desiccation during more extreme sea level drops when warm waters slosh toward the Americas during an El Niño.

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Furthermore, an El Niño in the Coral Triangle not only causes a sudden sea level fall, but it also generates a drier high-pressure system with clear skies, so that this region is exposed to more intense solar irradiance. In addition, El Niño conditions reduce regional winds that drive reef-flushing currents and produce greater wave washing that could minimize desiccation during extreme low tides. And as one would predict, these conditions were exactly what were observed during El Niño 2016 around Lizard Island and throughout the northern GBR.

Aerial surveys, on which Hughes 2017 based their analyses, cannot discriminate between the various causes of bleaching. To determine the cause of coral mortality, careful examination of bleached coral by divers is required to distinguish whether bleached coral were the result of storms, crown-of-thorns attacks, disease, aerial exposure during low tides, or anomalously warmer ocean waters. Crown-of-thorns leave diagnostic gnawing marks, while storms produce anomalous rubble. Furthermore aerial surveys only measure the aerial extent of bleaching, but cannot determine the depth to which most bleaching was restricted due to sea level fall. To distinguish bleaching and mortality caused by low tide exposure, divers must measure the extent of tissue mortality and compare it with changes in sea level. For example, the Indonesian researchers found the extent of dead coral tissue was mostly relegated to the upper 15 cm of coral, which correlated with the degree of increased aerial exposure by recent low tides. Unfortunately Hughes et al never carried out, or never reported, such critical measurements.

However a before-and-after photograph presented in Hughes 2017 suggested the severe GBR bleaching they attributed to global warming primarily happened between February and late April. Their aerial surveys occurred between March 22 and April 17, 2016. And consistent with low tide bleaching, that is exactly the time frame that tide tables reveal reefs experienced two bouts of extreme low tides coinciding with the heat of the afternoon (March 7-11 & April 5-10). And such a combination of sun and low tide are known to be deadly.

A study of a September 2005 bleaching event on Pelorous and Orpheus Islands in the central GBR by Anthony 2007, Coral Mortality Following Extreme Low Tides And High Solar Radiation, had reported extreme deadly effects when extreme low tides coincided with high solar irradiance periods around midday. As in Indonesia, they also reported bleaching and mortality had occurred despite water temperatures that were “significantly lower than the threshold temperature for coral bleaching in this region (Berkelmans 2002), and therefore unlikely to represent a significant stress factor.” Along the reef crests and flats, “40 and 75% of colonies in the major coral taxa were either bleached or suffered partial mortality. In contrast, corals at wave exposed sites were largely unaffected (<1% of the corals were bleached), as periodic washing of any exposed coral by waves prevented desiccation. Surveys along a 1–9 m depth gradient indicated that high coral mortality was confined to the tidal zone.” [Emphasis mine]

The fortuitous timing of Ampou’s coral habitat mapping from 2014 to 2016 in Bunaken National Park (located at the northwest tip of Sulawesi, Indonesia) allowed researchers to estimate the time of coral mortality relative to sea level and temperature changes. Ampou reported that in “September 2015, altimetry data show that sea level was at its lowest in the past 12 years, affecting corals living in the bathymetric range exposed to unusual emersion. By March 2016, Bunaken Island (North Sulawesi) displayed up to 85% mortality on reef flats” and that almost “all reef flats showed evidence of mortality, representing 30% of Bunaken reefs.” Based on the timing of reef deaths and changes in temperature they concluded, “the wide mortality we observed can not be simply explained by ocean warming due to El Niño.” They concluded, “The clear link between mortality and sea level fall, also calls for a refinement of the hierarchy of El Niño impacts and their consequences on coral reefs.”

From the illustrations (below) of a generalized topography of a fringing or barrier reef, we can predict the effects of low sea level by examining where bleaching and mortality would occur within the whole reef system. Coral occupying the reef crests are most sensitive to drops in sea level and desiccation because they are first to be exposed to dangerous periods of aerial exposure and last to re-submerge. The inner reef flats are vulnerable to lower sea levels, as those shallow waters are more readily exposed at low tide because the reef crest prevents ocean waters from flooding the flats. If reefs flats are not exposed, the shallow waters that remain can heat up dangerously fast. Accordingly Anthony 2007 found 40 to 75%, and Ampou 2017 found 85% of the reef flats had bleached. In contrast coral in the fore reefs are the least vulnerable to desiccation and higher temperatures due to direct contact with the ocean, upwelling and wave washing. Accordingly Anthony 2007 reported <1% bleaching in the fore reefs.

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Related: Over the top: the sad case of Tripp Funderburk & the Coral Restoration Foundation International

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