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Coral Bleaching Event: Worst in Decades

Oct 07, 2014 10:30 AM EDT
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Scientists are frantically monitoring Hawaii's unusual windless coast, finding that elevated sea surface temperatures are severely stressing corals near the shoreline, causing a major coral bleaching event that's even more intense than one seen two decades ago.

"Unfortunately, we are seeing evidence of wide-spread bleaching in shallow, near shore waters of windward Oahu," Frazer McGilvray, the administrator of the Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) Coral Rapid Response Team, said in a recent statement. "Coral bleaching is a stress response due to warmer ocean temperatures. Corals lose the color from their tissue, turning them snow white."

And it's not just a color change. Just as too much stress can cause someone's hair to turn white or gray, bleaching is a sign of exhaustion and poor health for corals.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources' (DLNR) DAR team was initially prompted to investigate corals near Oahu's shore after boaters and reports from the Eyes of the Reef Network started to notice extensive discoloration of the corals by the end of summer.

Since then, over this past week the DAR team, with partners from the Nature Conservancy and the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB), have conducted in-water surveys and assessments, finding extensive "moderate to severe bleaching."

Anne Rosinski of DAR told The Associated Press that "it is fairly common to see some level of bleaching around this time of year." The peak season for bleaching is between August and September.

However, "this is way above average from what we would expect," she added.

Reportedly, the last major bleaching event seen like this was in 1996, but even initial assessments clearly show that this new event is more severe.

"Corals can recover from bleaching if temperatures return to a normal range, but it can take many weeks to many years for them to fully recover from a bleaching event. Unfortunately, temperature forecasts suggest that the risk of bleaching will increase over the next several weeks," said William J. Aila, Jr., DLNR Chair. "It is important that we continue to monitor the extent and severity of this bleaching event. It's also critical that ocean users avoid disturbing corals at any time to avoid additional stress on them."

Coral Bleaching web from Hawaii DLNR on Vimeo.

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