Best of our wild blogs: 5 Jan 18

Jan 2018 sampling events for NUS–NParks Marine Debris Monitoring Programme
News from the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore

Corallimorph Hunt Day 2: Pulau Hantu
wild shores of singapore

The 14th Fall Migration Bird Census
Singapore Bird Group

New ‘ghost’ scorpion among several species recorded for the first time in Malaysian rainforest

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The mosquitoes that are fighting dengue and Zika

While killing insects would seem to be the best way of controlling the diseases they spread, some scientists are releasing more of the biting bug, re-engineered to stall epidemics.
Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar BBC 4 Jan 18;

On a late October morning in a hilly, middle-class neighbourhood in central Singapore, a crowd was forming for a surprising event. Top government officials, community leaders and a throng of media with cameras gathered around a group of scientists who had brought a most unusual gift: boxes of mosquitoes.

With a shout of “one, two, three”, they opened the boxes and released 3,000 of the insects into the air above Singapore’s Braddell Heights. In a country where the warm, tropical climate is ideal for mosquitoes, most people are used to swatting the insects rather than releasing more of them into the environment.

Fortunately, the residents of Braddell Heights had been prepared months in advance for this event, and welcomed the release. They knew that the mosquitoes would not bite – and that they were participating in an important study on the impact of mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia, a bacterium that hinders the insects’ fertility and blocks the ability of viruses like Zika to spread.

Singapore isn’t the only country throwing mosquitoes into the air. Across Asia and Latin America, scientists are trying out radical new methods to defeat Aedes aegypti, and the less widespread Aedes albopictus – the mosquito species that spreads the dengue, chikungunya, and Zika viruses.

Many of these experiments involve altering mosquitoes in the lab to render them harmless or infertile – with Wolbachia, irradiation, or even genetic modification. But the project in Singapore, along with an even larger trial in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, are showing that the release of these altered insects near human habitation is as much about persuading people about the effectiveness of this approach as it is about scientific innovation.

This new approach to controlling insects that spread disease – known as biological vectors – began several years ago, when alarm bells first rang over the rise of dengue, today considered the world’s fastest spreading tropical disease. Incidents of dengue have increased 30-fold in the past five decades, according to the World Health Organization. It has expanded from causing severe epidemics in just nine countries before 1970 to more than 100 countries today, many of them in Asia and Latin America.

The recent emergence of Zika, with its frightening links to brain damage in babies, has given experiments in vector control added urgency

The recent emergence of Zika, with its frightening links to brain damage in babies, has given experiments in vector control added urgency. There is no treatment yet for either dengue or Zika.

Despite this, there is some reticence among members of the public about projects to tackle the Aedes mosquito. Some of this has its roots in previous attempts to control this deadly insect. In the mid-20th Century, the prevalence of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and yellow fever led to large-scale sanitation programs and the widespread use of a powerful new insecticide: Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT).

After widespread use, DDT was eventually banned in 2004 due to concerns over its impact on human health and the environment. It has been linked to cancer in humans and a decline in predatory birds.


Despite this, the use of DDT did reduce numbers of mosquitos. This success led to complacency after the 1970s, says Duane Gubler, emeritus professor of infectious diseases at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. Brazil, for instance, was declared Aedes-free in 1958 but as measures were relaxed, the insect began to reappear in the 1970s. One genetic study, published in July this year, suggests that mosquitoes from non-eradicated areas in Venezuela recolonised northern Brazil, later expanding their distribution southwards.

At the same time, Gubler notes, two global trends were nurturing a mosquito comeback. Explosive, chaotic urbanisation created the perfect environment for the city-loving Aedes, as well as providing the perfect conditions for spreading viruses quickly. The growth in global transport and travel also aided their spread to new areas. Treated bed nets, often used to help prevent malaria, are also relatively useless against Aedes, which tends to be active during the day. Growing insecticide resistance added to the problem.

We desperately need a range of new tools - Duane Gubler

“We desperately need a range of new tools,” says Gubler, the world’s leading expert on dengue. “Fortunately, many of the ones in the pipeline seem very promising.”

The need is evident even in Singapore, a highly-developed city-state that has had one of the world’s best mosquito control programmes, which has been in operation for over 40 years, yet has recently seen a resurgence in dengue. Singapore looked at an array of new tools, including genetically modified mosquitoes, before settling on trials with Wolbachia.

A new weapon

Described by one scientist as “the biggest thing since DDT”, the use of Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes has become the most widespread of the new vector control experiments, with lab studies or field trials now underway in a dozen countries. The enthusiasm is understandable: Wolbachia seems like the perfect weapon against mosquito-borne disease.

It is found in more than half of all insects, but not usually in viral-pathogen-carrying mosquitoes. The microbe not only protects its host from diseases like dengue and Zika, but is also naturally built to spread rapidly through its host population. Plus, it does not transmit to humans or animals.

One approach to rolling out this Zika and dengue resistant bacterium, pioneered in 2011 by scientists at Monash University in Australia and propagated through the World Mosquito Program (formerly known as Eliminate Dengue), is to release both male and female Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes into the environment. Wolbachia is only passed from females to their offspring so releasing females with this bacterium means that it will be spread throughout the mosquito population, making them resistant to Zika and dengue.

Ten countries—Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Vietnam, Kiribati, Fiji and Vanuatu—have signed up for this approach.

Males infected with Wolbachia do not produce offspring when mating with non-infected females

Singapore, like China, is trying a second approach, aimed at suppressing the population of mosquitoes by releasing only male mosquitoes. Males infected with Wolbachia are unable to fertilise the eggs of non-infected females.

The method chosen is partly to do with cost. The second approach is more expensive because it involves sorting males from females in the lab and, unlike the first approach, requires sustained release of mosquitoes – at least until the population crashes, and perhaps even afterwards. Last year, following successful trials, China set up facilities in Guangzhou to produce five million Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes a week.

Public acceptance also plays a critical role in the choice of technology used, as scientists have learnt from past controversies, not only with DDT, but also unsuccessful trials of sterilised mosquitoes in India in the 1970s, which led to public panic over the chemicals being used.

Lee Chen Ng, the director of the Environmental Health Institute at Singapore’s National Environment Agency and head of its Wolbachia project, says they chose the suppression approach in part because male mosquitoes don’t bite, making it more acceptable to Singaporeans. It’s also in keeping with the country’s tough house-to-house checks on mosquito breeding that keeps bug numbers low.

Using Wolbachia to suppress mosquito breeding should also be seen as less risky than previous attempts because the bacteria already exists in the environment, suggests Ng. It has been found to be safe for humans and animals, although long-term ecological effects are not known. Trials of genetically modified mosquitoes were rejected by a community in southern United States last year, while Wolbachia trials proceeded with little fuss. In November, Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes were cleared for release by the US Environment Protection Authority in 20 states.


Nowhere is the importance of community more evident than in the low-rise city of Yogyakarta in Java, Indonesia, where Asia’s largest Wolbachia trial is underway. Adi Utarini, the project head and professor of public health at Gadjah Mada University, says their trial is not only about technological innovation but also community engagement.

“People think this is a lab project but it only starts in the lab, the insectary,” she says. “To bring this technology into the community is as much a challenge… because, in the end, it’s the community that decides whether they want this technology or not.”

Utarini and her team began in 2011 by importing infected eggs from Australia’s Monash University. For the next two years, they worked in the lab, testing and breeding Wolbachia mosquitoes. At the same time, their communications head Bekti Andari began visiting communities in the district of Sleman, where the first release would take place.

The enemy is not the mosquito, the enemy is the virus – Adi Utarini

The first challenge they faced, says Utarini, was having to tell people “the opposite of what they are used to believing: that you have to get rid of mosquitoes”. They had to educate people about the basics of disease transmission, to make them understand that “the enemy is not the mosquito, the enemy is the virus”.

The Sleman experience shaped the rest of the project. After releasing adult mosquitoes in Sleman – including biting females – the team switched to containers of Wolbachia-infected eggs. Eggs were an easier sell to the public. They were less obtrusive as the insects hatched and flew out at different times. It also meant releases could be made more frequently.

The researchers also hit upon another strategy to keep residents on-side – giving them their own containers of eggs to take care of. Having the mosquito containers in their own back gardens made people curious about the process and also motivated them to keep their mosquito container safe.

As the trial slowly expanded through Yogyakarta, the team used all the tools at their disposal: community meetings, neighbourhood newsletters, mass media, phone calls and emails, visits to the lab.

“We hid nothing from people,” says Utarini. “Challenges had to be continually met.” In one neighbourhood, the team had to briefly stop work during the dengue season because of panic over an outbreak of cases that affected 14 patients and led to one death. The team returned after people were calmer.

Between 2015 and 2017, half of the Yogyakarta’s 24 districts were inundated with Wolbachia mosquitoes. The other half served as the control, made possible by the fact that mosquitoes don’t fly too far.

By mid-2017, scientists had placed thousands of containers of eggs in backyards – one every 50 metres (164ft). Every two weeks they were refreshed with up to 120 new eggs. The scientists are now waiting for Wolbachia to expand to 80% of the mosquito population to see whether the releases are having the impact on the prevalence of dengue they predicted.

A good result, says Utarini, would be if the number of cases in Wolbachia areas is 50% less than control areas.

“That’s when we can say this works,” she says.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, the early results have been promising. Ng and her team found Wolbachia mosquitoes survive as well as wild mosquitoes in the urban environment, flying to upper floors, and successfully mating with the non-Wolbachia females. The viability of eggs collected from the study sites had fallen by half. Now, says Ng, they are looking at scaling up mosquito production and strategies of release.

Neither Ng nor Utarini believe Wolbachia is a silver bullet for Zika or dengue. But a mix of interventions could do the trick.

“If we can use new vaccines [for dengue and Zika] to increase herd immunity, and at the same time, new tools like Wolbachia and insecticides to reduce the mosquito population, we should be able to control these diseases,” says Gubler.

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Malaysia: Two dead dolphins washed up in Penang in under a week

AUDREY DERMAWAN New Straits Times 4 Jan 18;

GEORGE TOWN: Two dolphins have been found dead at the Tanjung Bungah beachfront in less than a week.

The first death was reported on Dec 29 while another death was reported today.

The double deaths have raised concern among environmentalists, who have called for a thorough probe into the incident.

Sahabat Alam Malaysia said the deaths of the mammals should be investigated.

The non-governmental organisation said that the earlier death was reported to the Fisheries Department but the department did not take any follow-up action.

"They just buried it instead of conducting an autopsy.

“We would not know the cause of death unless the department or the Fisheries Research Institute of Malaysia carries out a post-mortem," said a SAM representative.

The death of the mammals was first posted in the Pulau Parasit Facebook page.

According to the page, the dead dolphins were of the Indo-Pacific Humpback species.

Dolphins are a rare sight in Penang waters, but have been spotted around the island in recent weeks.

A local claimed to have seen several dolphins in the waters off Teluk Bahang on Christmas Eve, while another allegedly spotted a couple of dolphins near the Penang Bridge last Saturday.

Two dolphins found dead in less than a week
The Star 5 Jan 18;

GEORGE TOWN: A dead dolphin was washed ashore in Tanjung Bungah, the second within six days.

Environmental activist Andrew Ng Yew Han said the first dolphin, which was decomposing, was spotted last Friday at the same stretch of beach behind a hotel in Tanjung Bungah while another was found yesterday.

“I’ve asked the fishermen and residents’ association to let me know if there are more sightings of dead turtles or dolphins, and I alerted the authorities over the years whenever there are such sightings.

“This is to create more awareness and pressure the authorities to investigate such matters as it is vital to find out their cause of death,” he said.

She said the humpback species was among the four main species in Penang.

“We see them going around the island and they are commonly sighted in a big group heading north, west and south of the island.

“A post-mortem is needed to identify their cause of death.

“We are looking for funding. A proper lab is needed to do a post-mortem,” she said.

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Malaysia: Number of Pahang flood evacuees up to 9,892 despite kinder weather

TN Alagesh New Straits Times 4 Jan 18;

KUANTAN: Despite a more favourable weather across the state today, the number of flood evacuees continued to rise.

As at 7pm today, 9,892 from 2,652 families were forced out of their homes compared to 7,306 in the morning.

After floodwaters in Maran receded this afternoon, Bera is the latest district to be flooded as 36 people from 10 families were relocated to SK Kuala Triang and SK Charuk Puting about 3pm.

Six districts – Kuantan, Rompin, Pekan, Bera, Jerantut and Lipis – are still affected by the floods.

According to the Welfare Department’s flood portal, Kuantan remains the most severely-affected district with 7,840 people from 2,183 families seeking shelter at 31 relief centres.

Meanwhile, 714 victims from 190 families are seeking shelter in Rompin; 1,233 victims from 303 families in Pekan, 50 people from nine families in Jerantut, and 19 people from six families in Maran.

Schools reopen in flooded Kelantan, but rivers still above warning levels
MOHD SHAFUAN KHAIRI New Straits Times 4 Jan 18;

KOTA BARU: Five schools which were closed due to flooding in the state on Tuesday were reopened today.

Kelantan Education Director Zahari Othman said the schools resumed operations after floodwaters at access roads to the schools subsided overnight.

However, he said another school in Kuala Krai remains closed, forcing its 168 pupils to miss classes for another day.

"The school is SK Pasir Kelang. Its 168 pupils and 20 teachers have not been able to access the flooded school since Monday," he said in a statement.

The overall flood situation in Kelantan has improved – however, four rivers in the state are still above their warning levels as of 10am.

Pahang flood situation deteriorates; 7,306 people forced from homes
T N ALAGESH New Straits Times 4 Jan 18;

KUANTAN: The flood situation in Pahang has worsened due to non-stop downpours, and the number of residents forced to flee their homes has skyrocketed to 7,306 as of 9am today.

Lipis is the latest district to be hit by floods, with nine people from two families evacuated to the Tanjung Bungor multipurpose hall and the Lentang hall last night.

The worst-hit districts are Kuantan, Rompin, Pekan, Maran, Jerantut and Lipis, where the number of flood evacuees rose precipitously from 5,965 last night.

According to the Welfare Department’s flood portal, Kuantan remains the most severely-affected district with 5,663 people from 1,633 families seeking shelter at 24 relief centres.

Meanwhile, 665 victims from 178 families are seeking shelter in Rompin; 715 victims from 182 families in Pekan, 32 people from six families in Jerantut, and 222 people from 50 families in Maran.

A state Civil Defence Force (APM) spokesman said two villages in Lipis were inundated by floods at about 11pm on Wednesday, forcing the villagers’ relocation.

He said continuous heavy rain in several areas, and rising river levels could force more people to be relocated to relief centres today.

2.30pm UPDATE:

The worsening flood situation has forced 42 schools across the state to be closed today, 27 more than yesterday.

Eleven schools were closed on Tuesday, the first day of the new school term, and the number rose to 15 yesterday.

Pahang director of Education Dr Tajuddin Mohd Yunus said 15 schools were closed in Kuantan and Jerantut respectively, while four were shut in Temerloh.

He said three schools were closed in Lipis, two each in Pekan and Maran, and one in Bera.

Meanwhile, the Social Welfare Department’s ‘infobanjir’ app reported that as of 1pm, 8,296 flood evacuees from 2,289 families are seeking shelter in six districts in Pahang, compared to 7,306 people earlier today.

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Indonesia: Hydro-meteorological disasters forecast to be dominant in 2018

Antara 4 Jan 18;

Jakarta (ANTARA News) - Hydro-meteorological disasters are forecast to be dominant in 2018, according to the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB).

"It is forecast that natural disasters in 2018 will be dominated by floods, landslides, and whirlwinds. It is estimated that 90 percent of the natural disasters would be hydro-meteorological disasters," Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman of the BNPB, said here on Thursday.

Rainy and dry seasons are expected to be normal this year. There will be no El Nino, which could cause drought, or La Nina, which could trigger excessive rains.

"However, floods, landslides, and whirlwinds will remain dominant; however, their locations will depend on the intensity of precipitation.

Indonesia is prone to hydro-meteorological disasters, because the country is located in the tropical region and is an archipelago having high precipitation, as well as due to the impact of global climate change, he explained.

"Global climate change has made rains more extreme, and therefore, heavy rains are often experienced," he noted.

Anthropogenic factors have also worsened flooding, landslides, and whirlwinds, he added.

Hydro-meteorological disasters have been worsened by the exploitation of environmental and natural resources, as well as land conversions, such as conversion of forests into plantation areas.

reported by Dewanto Samodro
Editor: Heru Purwanto

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Indonesia: Oil palm farmer mauled to death by tiger in Riau

Rizal Harahap The Jakarta Post 4 Jan 18;

A farmer named Jumiati, 30, was mauled to death by a tiger on Wednesday morning while working in an oil palm plantation in Pelangiran district, Indragiri Hilir regency, Riau.

Pelangiran Police chief First Insp. Muhammad Rafi said that the tiger, believed to be a Sumatran tiger, appeared without warning at around 10 a.m. in an area where Jumiati and two other workers, Yusmawati and Fitriyanti, were pruning weeds and recording data on oil palm trees.

The plantation is owned by PT Tabung Haji Indo Plantation (THIP).

Upon spotting the animal, the three immediately fled the scene, but the tiger was still able to corner them.

"To save themselves, they climbed the 2-meter-high oil palm trees. But the tiger caught Jumiati by the leg and she fell out of her tree," Rafi said. "According to [Yusmawati and Fitriyanti], Jumiati wrestled with the tiger until it bit her in the neck."

The two waited in the trees for two hours until a truck carrying workers passed by during their lunch break.

They later reported the incident to the Pelangiran Police.

"But the tiger had gone [by the time officers arrived]. We found [Jumiati’s] body in the bushes,” Rafi said.

Several days before the incident, several Pelangiran residents reported about a tiger wandering into their neighborhood.

Riau Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) spokesperson Dian Indriati said the BKSDA was still unable to confirm whether it was a Sumatran tiger that attacked Jumiati, pending an ongoing assessment. (vla/ipa)

Tiger mauls Indonesian palm oil plantation worker to death
AFP Jakarta Post 5 Jan 18;

A Sumatran tiger has mauled an Indonesian palm oil plantation worker to death, officials said Thursday, the latest in a string of deadly conflicts between humans and animals blamed on rampant deforestation.

Jumiatik, 30, was found dead at the plantation in Riau province on Sumatra island Wednesday with horrific bite wounds on her neck and legs, police said.

The victim, who like many Indonesians went by one name, was collecting data on pests with two female colleagues before the tiger appeared and chased the trio some 200 meters (655 feet) through the plantation.

Her two workmates, who survived the brutal attack, told authorities they tried to evade the animal by scrambling up oil palm trees, but the tiger latched onto Jumiatik's leg and dragged her to the ground.

"Jumiatik struggled with the tiger for about 15 minutes," local police chief Iptu Rafi told AFP.

"(She) suffered serious injuries on parts of her neck and was eventually killed."

There have been several cases in recent years of tigers killing people in Indonesia, where logging of rainforest to make way for palm oil plantations is destroying animals' habitat and bringing them into closer contact with humans.

Last month, a pregnant elephant was found dead at another palm oil plantation on Sumatra, in what authorities suspect was a deliberate poisoning after the elephant ate farmers' fertilizer.

Sumatran tigers are considered critically endangered by protection group the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with 400 to 500 remaining in the wild.

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Oceans suffocating as huge dead zones quadruple since 1950, scientists warn

Areas starved of oxygen in open ocean and by coasts have soared in recent decades, risking dire consequences for marine life and humanity
Damian Carrington The Guardian 4 Jan 18;

Ocean dead zones with zero oxygen have quadrupled in size since 1950, scientists have warned, while the number of very low oxygen sites near coasts have multiplied tenfold. Most sea creatures cannot survive in these zones and current trends would lead to mass extinction in the long run, risking dire consequences for the hundreds of millions of people who depend on the sea.

Climate change caused by fossil fuel burning is the cause of the large-scale deoxygenation, as warmer waters hold less oxygen. The coastal dead zones result from fertiliser and sewage running off the land and into the seas.

The analysis, published in the journal Science, is the first comprehensive analysis of the areas and states: “Major extinction events in Earth’s history have been associated with warm climates and oxygen-deficient oceans.” Denise Breitburg, at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in the US and who led the analysis, said: “Under the current trajectory that is where we would be headed. But the consequences to humans of staying on that trajectory are so dire that it is hard to imagine we would go quite that far down that path.”

“This is a problem we can solve,” Breitburg said. “Halting climate change requires a global effort, but even local actions can help with nutrient-driven oxygen decline.” She pointed to recoveries in Chesapeake Bay in the US and the Thames river in the UK, where better farm and sewage practices led to dead zones disappearing.

However, Prof Robert Diaz at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who reviewed the new study, said: “Right now, the increasing expansion of coastal dead zones and decline in open ocean oxygen are not priority problems for governments around the world. Unfortunately, it will take severe and persistent mortality of fisheries for the seriousness of low oxygen to be realised.”

The oceans feed more than 500 million people, especially in poorer nations, and provide jobs for 350 million people. But at least 500 dead zones have now been reported near coasts, up from fewer than 50 in 1950. Lack of monitoring in many regions means the true number may be much higher.

The open ocean has natural low oxygen areas, usually off the west coast of continents due to the way the rotation of the Earth affects ocean currents. But these dead zones have expanded dramatically, increasing by millions of square kilometres since 1950, roughly equivalent to the area of the European Union.

Furthermore, the level of oxygen in all ocean waters is falling, with 2% – 77bn tonnes – being lost since 1950. This can reduce growth, impair reproduction and increase disease, the scientists warn. One irony is that warmer waters not only hold less oxygen but also mean marine organisms have to breathe faster, using up oxygen more quickly.

There are also dangerous feedback mechanisms. Microbes that proliferate at very low oxygen levels produce lots of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

In coastal regions, fertiliser, manure and sewage pollution cause algal blooms and when the algae decompose oxygen is sucked out of the water. However, in some places, the algae can lead to more food for fish and increase catches around the dead zones. This may not be sustainable though, said Breitburg: “There is a lot of concern that we are really changing the way these systems function and that the overall resilience of these systems may be reduced.”

The new analysis was produced by an international working group created in 2016 by Unesco’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. The commission’s Kirsten Isensee said: “Ocean deoxygenation is taking place all over the world as a result of the human footprint, therefore we also need to address it globally.”

Lucia von Reusner, campaign director the campaign group, Mighty Earth, which recently exposed a link between the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and large scale meat production, said: “These dead zones will continue to expand unless the major meat companies that dominate our global agricultural system start cleaning up their supply chains to keep pollution out of our waters.”

Diaz said the speed of ocean suffocation already seen was breathtaking: “No other variable of such ecological importance to coastal ecosystems has changed so drastically in such a short period of time from human activities as dissolved oxygen.”

He said the need for urgent action is best summarised by the motto of the American Lung Association: “If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”

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'Rather startling': Study finds rapid increase in frequency of coral bleaching

Peter Hannam Sydney Morning Herald 5 Jan 18;

The frequency of severe coral bleaching events has increased fivefold in four decades because of climate change, a pace already exceeding the time needed for some species to recover, a new global study has found.

Of 100 reefs examined worldwide, just six have escaped severe bleaching since 1980.

The bleaching, which was initially restricted to years with El Nino events in the Pacific, can now occur in any year. It may become an annual event "in coming decades", according to the study, published in the journal Science on Friday.

"Before 1982-83 [a year with a strong El Nino], there was no bleaching on a regional or global scale," said Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, and the paper's lead author.

"In more recent times, we're seeing them even in La Nina years when it's slightly cooler on a global scale," Professor Hughes said. "La Ninas in the tropics today are warmer than El Ninos were 40 years ago."

When sustained heat stress exceeds certain thresholds, corals typically expel algae - zooxanthellae​ - that provide most of their energy and their often spectacular colours.

An unprecedented marine heatwave over much of the Great Barrier Reef - spanning the summers of 2015-16 and 2016-17 - caused the death of as much as half the corals of the World Heritage-listed natural treasure.

Before the 1980s, bleaching was recorded only a local scale. Since then, the scale of such events has increased to the regional or even global level, with the return time of severe bleaching shrinking from every 25-30 years to once every 5.9 years by 2016, the researchers found.

"Our analysis indicates that we are already approaching a scenario in which every hot summer, with or without an El Nino, has the potential to cause bleaching and mortality at a regional scale," the paper said.

"The rate of the increase was rather startling," said Mark Eakin, coordinator of the Coral Reef Watch program at the US's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and another author of the report. "We've moved into a complete new regime."

Further warming of the oceans between now and 2050 is "already baked in by the actions we're already taken" in terms of pumping out heat-trapping carbon emissions, Dr Eakin said.

Global temperatures have risen about 1 degree since the industrial era began. The Paris climate accord signed by almost 200 nations two years ago aims to keep further warming to between 0.5 and 1 degrees.

"One degree of warming so far has made coral reefs uncomfortable globally," Professor Hughes sai. "Two [degrees] will be bearable, but much above that and we'll see irreparable damage."

Faster growing coral species typically need 10-15 years to recover, with others taking much longer.

"The susceptible ones tend to be the more three-dimensional, table-like corals, that are very important for providing the nooks and crannies for fish and other creatures," Professor Hughes said. "So there are certainly ecosystem-wide effects of losing the corals."

The tougher species tend to be dome shaped. While important for the accretion and growth of the reefs overall, they tend not to be so good for sheltering juvenile or adult fish, he said.

"We'll have a reef in the future if we stop extreme global warming but the mix of species will continue to change, Professor Hughes said.

Southern reef outlook
Sea-surface temperatures off northern Australia are closer to average this year, helped by the presence of the weak La Nina in the Pacific.

Still, the latest Coral Reef Watch from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration points to thermal stress further south, such as off south-eastern Australia.

Samantha Goyen, a PhD student at the University of Technology, said she will be watching for any return of coral bleaching to Sydney Harbour.

The harbour's corals bleached for the first time on record in 2016, but recovered quickly once temperatures dropped back to normal.

"How they can cope with recurring warmer than average years is unknown at this stage but as we have already shown there is a stress response when temperature exceeds the normal summer maximum by a couple of degrees," Ms Goyen said.

Further south, corals off the Victoria coast are yet to record impacts from warming seas, said Steffan Howe, the Marine Science manager at Parks Victoria.

"We haven't observed any bleaching of those species yet, but there are a whole heap of other impacts," Dr Howe said, citing the spread southwards of damaging species such as black spined urchins and gloomy octupuses as the East Australian Current strengthens with climate change.

"Maybe like the corals on the Great Barrier Reef, they could be vulnerable to a sustained increase in temperatures," he said.

Coral reef bleaching 'the new normal' and a fatal threat to ecosystems
Study of 100 tropical reef locations finds time between bleaching events has shrunk and is too short for full recovery
Helen Davidson The Guardian 4 Jan 18;

Repeated large-scale coral bleaching events are the new normal thanks to global warming, a team of international scientists has found.

In a study published in the journal Science, the researchers revealed a “dramatic shortening” of the time between bleaching events was “threatening the future existence of these iconic ecosystems and the livelihoods of many millions of people”.

The study examined 100 tropical reef locations across the world, analysing existing data on coral bleaching events as well as new field research conducted on the Great Barrier Reef after the longest and worst case of bleaching caused by climate change killed almost 25% of the coral.

“Before the 1980s, mass bleaching of corals was unheard of, even during strong El Niño conditions,” said lead author Prof Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. “Now repeated bouts of regional-scale bleaching and mass mortality of corals has become the new normal around the world as temperatures continue to rise.”

The study found that time between bleaching events had diminished five-fold in the past 30 to 40 years, and was now too short to allow for a full recovery and was approaching unsustainable levels.

While mass bleaching events used to occur about once every 27 years, by 2016 the median time between them had shrunk to 5.9 years. Only six of the 100 sites had escaped bleaching.

“Our analysis indicates that we are already approaching a scenario in which every hot summer, with or without an El Niño event, has the potential to cause bleaching and mortality at a regional scale,” the paper said.

Globally, the annual risk of severe and moderate bleaching had increased by almost 4% a year since the 1980s, from an expected 8% of locations to 31% in 2016.

The Western Atlantic remained at highest risk but Australasia and the Middle East saw the strongest increases in risk of bleaching.

Hughes said he hoped the “stark results” would prompt stronger action on reducing greenhouse gases. In May scientists warned that the central goal of the Australian government’s protection plan was no longer feasible because of the dramatic impact of climate change.

Friday’s paper also determined the link between El Niño and mass bleaching events has diminished as global warming continues.

Prior to the 1980s mass coral bleaching on a regional scale was “exceedingly rare or absent” and occurred in localised areas stretching tens of kilometres, not the hundreds of kilometres affected in recent times, the paper said.

These local bleaching events were largely caused by small-scale stressors like unusually hot or cold weather, freshwater inundation or sedimentation.

Then global warming increased the thermal stress of strong El Niño events, the paper said, widening the impact of individual bleaching events. Now, they are occurring at any time.

“Back in the 80s it was only during El Niño events that waters became hot enough to damage corals and induce them to bleach,” co-author Andrew Baird, a professor at James Cook University, told Guardian Australia.

“But now it’s 30, 40 years later and we’re seeing those temperatures in normal years.”

Baird said it was difficult to know if the current conditions were reversible but “the window to address it is diminishing”.

“It’s impossible to know if this is the end of coral reefs but it might be,” he said. “We really need to get on top of climate change as soon as possible.”

There have been several large-scale and devastating mass bleaching events in recent years. The 2015-16 event affected 75% of the reefs studied by the researchers, who said it was comparable to the then unprecedented mass bleaching of 1997-98, when 74% were affected.

“Interestingly one of the first papers that effectively drew attention to the issue – back in 1999 – suggested that by 2016, 2017, 2020, we would be seeing bleaching annually,” Baird said. “That’s pretty close to what’s happening unfortunately.

“Some of these earlier works were quite prescient in their prediction and unfortunately we didn’t pay enough attention back then.”

The study follows a discovery late last year that 3% of the Great Barrier Reef could facilitate recovery after bleaching – a finding the researchers at the time suggested was akin to a life-support system but small enough not to be taken for granted.

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Great Barrier Reef: Crown-of-thorns starfish eating their way through coral in major outbreak

George Roberts ABC 5 Jan 18;

Thousands of crown-of-thorns starfish are understood to be eating their way through coral in a major outbreak at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, as authorities consider how to tackle the problem.

The outbreak on the Swain Reefs off Yeppoon was discovered last year, but the area is remote and hostile, hampering efforts to control the spread of the coral-killing marine animal.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) has confirmed it has been working out how to deal with the outbreak since last year.

The Authority's director of education, stewardship and partnerships, Fred Nucifora, said monitoring crews went to the area to assess the problem last month.

"They did some pre-emptive culling on the reefs whilst they were there in December and there is another mission and scheduled for January," Mr Nucifora said.

Images and footage provided by GBRMPA show dozens of starfish covering swathes of the reef.

Hugh Sweatman from the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences would not put a figure on it, but said the number of starfish counted was high.

"Very, very high densities [are] being seen, as high as we've seen in the past," Dr Sweatman said, "and as high as you'd expect to see and there'll certainly be a lot of coral lost as a result".

He said the starfish, which also have poisonous barbs that are harmful to humans, engulf the corals to eat them.

"The crown-of-thorns starfish has an extrudable stomach so it lies on top of the coral and it wraps its stomach around the coral," he said.

"It doesn't actually break bits off the coral, it just digests the tissue off the of the skeleton … it's very effective at that."

The starfish is native to the reef but when numbers explode, the results can be devastating, as thousands of the creatures munch their way through the coral.

"Each starfish eats about its body diameter a night and so over time that mounts up very significantly," Dr Sweatman said.

Some 'control' or culling efforts underway
Dr Sweatman said the reef could recover but a major culling operation would be needed to give the area the best chance.

The Federal Government and the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, runs "control" or culling operations and the Government is seeking tender applications for a third boat dedicated to culling the starfish.

Mr Nucifora said the "control" measures have been focused on specific areas.

"Particularly in the far northern, northern and central sections of the Marine Park, at this point in time, and those reefs that have been identified as high tourism and high ecological value have been primary targets to this point," he said.

Because the Swain Reefs are so far offshore and are not in the areas identified as priorities for controlling crown-of-thorns outbreaks it is unclear how the major culling program needed would be funded and resourced.

Location of the outbreak puzzling but provides hope
The cause of the outbreak has scientists and the Marine Park Authority stumped.

"That's the million dollar question to be perfectly honest," Mr Nucifora said.

Typically scientists link outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish to spikes in ocean nutrients caused by coastal and agricultural run-off into the ocean.

For that reason outbreaks are usually further north and closer to the coast, but the Swain Reefs are a long way offshore and on the southern end of the reef, so it is not known what caused the outbreak.

Mr Nucifora said there were some scientific theories.

"It may be caused by nutrient up-welling from deep ocean waters, but that's still yet to be fully proven," he said.

The Swains Reefs, he said, had been hit by a crown-of-thorns outbreak in the 1990s but had managed to recover.

He was hopeful the area could survive again, because of its isolated location at the southern end of the reef system.

"The good thing with respect to that also is that those reefs in the far southern section of the marine park have escaped the significant pressures that have resulted in the last two years from the mass bleaching events," Mr Nucifora said.

The type of coral present, he said, also gave it a good chance.

"The coral species that that are primarily present in that area are the faster growing our staghorn and plate corals," he said.

Biggest threat still coral bleaching
The crown-of-thorns outbreak puts more strain on a Great Barrier Reef system that has seen two consecutive years of mass coral bleaching from ocean warming.

An international study, published today in the prestigious Science journal, warned that the window of time for saving the world's reefs from coral bleaching was closing.

Dr Sweatman said that was still the biggest concern.

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