South China Sea: Shock mass coral die-off in Asia sounds alarm for world’s reefs

Alice Klein New Scientist 23 Mar 17;

It’s even worse than we thought. An unexpected coral bleaching event in the South China Sea shows that reefs can heat up substantially more than the surrounding ocean, making them more vulnerable to climate change.

The finding suggests that efforts to limit global warming to 2 °C under the Paris Agreement may not be sufficient to save the world’s tropical reefs.

In June 2015, the South China Sea warmed by 2 °C in response to a normal El Niño weather pattern. The moderate temperature rise was not expected to cause significant coral damage.

However, at Dongsha Atoll in the northern part of the sea, the sea surface temperature soared to 6 °C above average, killing 40 per cent of the coral.

This temperature blow-out occurred because the atoll’s shallow water was able to heat up more than the surrounding ocean, research led by Thomas DeCarlo at the University of Western Australia shows. This amplified the El Niño effect.

In addition, unusually weak winds during the same period slowed the spread of heat into the surrounding ocean, so that it became trapped within the atoll.

“Ocean temperatures are already warming due to climate change,” says DeCarlo. “But what we’ve shown is that on top of that, local weather anomalies or processes like reduced wind can drive reef temperatures even higher,” he says. “That compounds the risk that corals are facing.”

The findings fit with emerging research from other coral reefs, says Bill Leggat at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. “The evidence suggests that we’re going to get these local conditions pushing corals above bleaching levels a lot more often.”

Triple threat
Sea surface temperatures around the world have been increasing by an average of 0.07 °C per decade over the last century due to human-made climate change. This has increased the risk that El Niño and local weather anomalies will tip reef temperatures into the danger zone.

Tropical coral reefs are sensitive to small temperature anomalies – as little as 1 °C, DeCarlo says. Warmer waters strip away the colourful photosynthesising algae that nourish corals, leading to bleaching and often death.

To examine whether previous El Niño events have caused bleaching at Dongsha Atoll, the team analysed 22 coral skeleton cores. They looked for stress bands along the cores indicative of earlier bleaching events.

The results showed that less than half the coral was bleached during El Niño events in 1983, 1998 and 2007. But during the 2015 El Niño, 100 per cent of the coral was bleached. This implies that the 2015 bleaching event was the most severe to hit Dongsha Atoll in at least the past 40 years, and possibly much longer, DeCarlo says.

Most future projections for coral reefs in a 2°C global warming scenario only take into account background ocean warming, rather than local weather effects on reefs, says DeCarlo. “They may be overly optimistic.”

“The only hope now is to minimise carbon dioxide emissions as much as possible and try to protect reefs as best as we can on a local scale,” says Leggat.

'Devastating' coral loss in South China Sea - scientists
Helen Briggs BBC News 24 Mar 17;

Scientists are warning of another "devastating" loss of coral due to a spike in sea temperatures.

They say 40% of coral has died at the Dongsha Atoll in the South China Sea.

Nothing as severe has happened on Dongsha for at least 40 years, according to experts.

Anne Cohen of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, US, said the high water temperatures of 2015/16 were devastating for reef systems globally, including Dongsha.

Coral bleaching - where corals turn white and may die - was the worst on record for Australia's iconic Great Barrier Reef in 2016.

The barrier reef has absorbed a lot of the attention, but other reefs around the world were also severely affected, said Dr Cohen.

"The 2015/2016 El Nino was devastating for reef systems in other parts of the world as well, including Dongsha Atoll and reefs in the central Pacific, where some of the most pristine coral reefs are located and of course, the US Pacific Remote Marine National Monument," she said. "We observed devastating bleaching in that area as well."

Only last week, scientists published observations of three major die-offs of coral at the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, 2002 and 1998.

They concluded that the only way to preserve the world's coral reefs is to take drastic action to reduce global warming.
The study of the Dongsha Atoll, reported in the journal, Scientific Reports, echoes this finding.

"Based on what we observed on Dongsha, a 2 degree cap on ocean warming may not be enough to save coral reefs," Dr Cohen told BBC News.

"This is because coral reefs are shallow water ecosystems and a tweak in the local weather can turn that 2 degrees Celsius into a 6 degrees Celsius warming."

The Dongsha Atoll, located in the South China Sea, near south-eastern China and the Philippines, is rich in marine life and is regarded as one of the world's most important coral reefs.

The researchers said on its own, a 2 degrees Celsius rise in temperatures was unlikely to cause widespread damage to coral reefs in the region.

But, a high-pressure system caused temperatures to spike to 6 degrees, leading to the death of 40% of coral over the course of six weeks.

They argue that predictions of the future of coral reefs may be "overly optimistic" for some reefs in shallow water.
Bleaching happens when high water temperatures cause corals to expel the algae they depend upon.

The Australian government confirmed in March that widespread coral bleaching is happening on the Great Barrier Reef for the fourth time in history.

Corals die as global warming collides with local weather in the South China Sea
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Science Daily 23 Mar 17;

In the South China Sea, a 2°C rise in the sea surface temperature in June 2015 was amplified to produce a 6°C rise on Dongsha Atoll, a shallow coral reef ecosystem, killing approximately 40 percent of the resident coral community within weeks, according to a study.

In the South China Sea, a 2°C rise in the sea surface temperature in June 2015 was amplified to produce a 6°C rise on Dongsha Atoll, a shallow coral reef ecosystem, killing approximately 40 percent of the resident coral community within weeks, according to a study published in Scientific Reports this week.

Wind and waves churn the sea, flushing shallow-water coral reefs with seawater from the open ocean to help them stay cool. But according to new research from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), when the weather turns still and these natural cooling mechanisms subside, just a few degrees of ocean warming can prove lethal to the corals that live there.

Scientists at WHOI studied this phenomenon in June 2015 while conducting research on Dongsha Atoll, an almost perfectly circular coral reef in the remote South China Sea. The findings, published in the March 24, 2017 issue of the journal Scientific Reports, highlight the devastation caused when global-scale ocean warming interacts with short-lived weather anomalies, and adds urgency to the question of how reefs will fare through the end of this century.

"Dongsha Atoll is typically hit with tropical storms and strong winds in June, which keep the corals as cool as the open ocean," said Tom DeCarlo, lead author of the study and a then-graduate student in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography. "But in 2015, the weather in June was exceptionally calm -- at one point, there was basically no wind and no waves. This had an amplifying effect on the water temperatures, which were already feeling the heat from global warming and El Niño. The whole reef became a giant swimming pool that just sat there and baked in the sun."

According the DeCarlo, who is now a scientist with the University of Western Australia, it only took a few days of calm winds and waves before the reef lost its supply of cooler water from the open ocean. "We saw water temperatures surge to 36 °C (97 °F) -- a full 6° C above normal summertime temperatures. This caused 100% of the corals to bleach, and 40% of them died," he said.

Gone and back again

DeCarlo, WHOI scientist Anne Cohen, and dive master Pat Lohmann, witnessed the start of the mass die-off on the last day of their month-long field visit to Dongsha. They had just finished up an ecological survey of coral cover on the reef, and before heading home, jumped in the water to retrieve instruments they use to monitor water temperature, pH and currents. "That's when we saw that all the corals had turned white," said DeCarlo. "We had to catch our flights the next day, but the situation looked dire so Anne sent us back out to the site within a few weeks.

According to Cohen, the lead principal investigator on the project, the timing was remarkable given they were still on site when the bleaching started. "It's quite uncommon to be out there in such a remote place as a massive bleaching event is actually happening," said Cohen. "From Tom's surveys, we knew what the healthy reef looked like just before the bleaching, so we could make a direct comparison with the post-bleaching data to assess the effects of the warming."

Upon their return, the scientists boated back out to the reef and saw a green tint shimmering through the water -- a possible sign that the corals made it through the bleaching event and were returning to a normal state. But when they dove in, they realized what they had seen was actually green turf algae covering dead corals. "This was the fastest-calcifying reef we've ever studied," said DeCarlo. "So we thought it would have shown resiliency. But everything had come crashing down in the space of a few weeks."

Cooling system shutdown

The team suspected the amplified warming was due to the weather lull, but they couldn't automatically rule out the possibility that fewer clouds and more sunlight in 2015 versus previous years had caused the event. To test this hypothesis, DeCarlo and co-author Kristen Davis, using data recorded by instruments deployed on the reef, conducted a number of "heat budget" calculations to hone in on the specific factors that drove the extreme heating.

"We saw that air-to-sea heating mechanisms like sunlight and air temperature had remained nearly constant throughout June, but the wind- and wave-driven currents pushing in cooler offshore water were essentially turned off for a few days. This was the big change that caused the water temperatures to spike on the reef, so our hypothesis was correct -- the unusually calm weather pattern was the primary culprit," said DeCarlo.

Scanning history

Water temperatures stabilized in early July as the winds and waves finally kicked up. But the widespread damage had already been done. Given the magnitude of the event, the scientists wanted to know if this reef had experienced similar temperature extremes in the past, and if so, whether the corals recovered. According to Cohen, however, few historical bleaching data existed for the region.

"This is a super-remote place that takes two hours to get to by plane from mainland Taiwan," she said. There were unpublished accounts of bleaching in 1997, but the severity and extent of that event were not quantified.

Without precise historical records, the team drilled core samples from corals living on the reef and used Computed Tomography (CT) scans to look for signals of thermal stress in the past. The scans, which look like an x-rayed mop handle, reveal annual rings or "bands" of varying densities in the coral's skeleton.

"These bands are like a history book for coral reefs, allowing you to count back in time to specific years and events," said Cohen, who attributes her lab's unique "paleo perspective" to her background in paleo-oceanography. "The brighter, high-density bands, which we call 'stress bands,' are signatures of long and intense bleaching events. Based on cores we scanned, it appears there had been only three previous bleaching events between 1983 and 2015, each of which happened in El Niño years. But we detected very few stress bands in the cores, so while there had been bleaching, these events were not nearly as severe as 2015."

Interpreting the CT scan data, DeCarlo says many corals that had bleached in the past appear to have recovered. "The skeletal records show that less than 50 percent of the colonies had bleached during these historical events, which is a stark contrast to the 100 percent bleaching we saw in 2015. This suggests that the area had not seen thermal stress this extreme in the last forty years at least -- maybe even in the last 100 years."

21st century reef

The study highlights the consequences for shallow-water coral reefs when global warming intersects with short-lived weather anomalies. But the scientists say their observations also suggest the possibility that climate model projections may underestimate what some coral reefs will experience as the ocean continues to warm over this century.

"The current global climate models and prognosis for reefs are based on a 2 °C warming scenario for the open ocean," said DeCarlo. "But these projections usually don't account for the kind of regional and local weather anomalies we saw at Dongsha. When you have weather amplification events superimposed on top of carbon dioxide-driven ocean warming, that's when things can get really bad for corals. Models based on open-ocean warming already paint a dire picture for coral reefs, but the scary reality is that they may be too optimistic for many shallow reefs."

"Projections based on open-ocean temperatures may not be 100% relevant to these shallow-water environments, where many coral communities live," Cohen added. "It's possible that coral reefs are in much more immediate danger than we have anticipated. When global and regional anomalies align, a seemingly-mild two-degree warming could be more like six degrees."

Journal Reference:

Thomas M. DeCarlo, Anne L. Cohen, George T. F. Wong, Kristen A. Davis, Pat Lohmann, Keryea Soong. Mass coral mortality under local amplification of 2 °C ocean warming. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7: 44586 DOI: 10.1038/srep44586

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