“Climate Change in Your Face” — Great Barrier Reef Suffers Second Consecutive Mass Bleaching as Potential for Record Warm 2017 Looms

 

On March 2nd, 2017, the Great Barrier Reef was already starting to show signs of bleaching. After suffering a worst-ever coral bleaching event in 2016, concerns were high that warmer waters could again strike the reef — spurring a second consecutive mass die-off. Even worse, some scientists were concerned that 2017’s bleaching could exceed the intensity of the record 2016 event.

Now it appears that just such a catastrophe is underway. And scientists expect about 2/3 of the world’s largest reef to experience bleaching over the next couple of months.

According to reports from Eyewitness News in Australia — the Great Barrier Reef has been given a “terminal prognosis” by scientists unless the rate of global warming is slowed. The March 10 news report noted that “one of the world’s greatest natural treasures is losing its fight for life” as a second mass coral bleaching event impacts the reef in as many years. Richard Leck of the World Wildlife Fund expressed his shock stating “No scientists ever thought that we would have back-to-back mass coral bleaching events… This is climate change in your face.”

Aerial surveys found that 30 to 100 percent of corals visible from the air along large sections of the 2300 kilometer reef had experienced some level of bleaching.

Fourth Consecutive Hottest Year on Record?

Unfortunately for the reef and for the rest of world’s natural wonders, coastlines, biological diversity, cities and nations, the rate of global warming appears to be accelerating. A situation that will put most of life on Earth, including its corals and the crops human beings rely on for food, into a state of permanent heat stress.

A new scientific study showed that the rate of heat gain in the world’s oceans, due to heat trapping gasses like CO2 hitting the atmosphere at near record rates, is speeding up. Meanwhile a number of scientists are starting to worry that 2017 will be a fourth consecutive record hot year in a row.

(Fourth consecutive record hot year in a row? If it happens, it would be just one more unprecedented, unexpected event related to climate change to add to the a long and growing list. Image source: Zeke Hausfather.)

Zeke Hausfather of the Berkley Earth Surface Temperature group posted the above image on Twitter noting: “2017 has been weirdly warm so far despite a lack of El Nino conditions. If Jan/Feb temps were representative it would end up surpassing 2016.”

The team, which is ironically funded by the Koch Brothers (of climate change denial infamy) and was formed by climate skeptic Richard Muller, has done preliminary global temperature estimates and found that February of 2017 was the second hottest on record globally. If true, this would put the year on a very warm launching pad despite a recent weak La Nina event in the Pacific which should have resulted in considerably more cyclical global cooling. NOAA now shows the potential for a weak to moderate El Nino to form during the spring and summer. And the risk exists that warm surface waters in the Pacific will combine with an already very strong warming amplification in the polar regions brought on by climate change to spike global temperatures yet again.

We should note that such an occurrence would be very odd — flying in the face of traditional understanding of the El Nino/La Nina cycle. Usually, post El Nino years tend to cool somewhat (including the effect of follow-on La Nina events) even as the overall global warming trend has ramped higher. So if we do experience a record warm year post La Nina, then other factors are helping to drive the global climate system. And the chief suspects at this time appear to be positive Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a Polar Amplification associated with global warming, and spiking ocean temperatures associated with global warming.

Conditions in Context — Climate Tipping Points

To be very clear, what’s happening to the Great Barrier Reef at this time is terrible. But it is not an isolated event. Regions the world over are starting to feel increasingly worsening impacts from climate change. To name just a few of the major impacts now rippling across the globe: Parts of East Africa are getting pushed toward lower farm productivity and ultimate uninhabitability by the rising heat, Northern Hemisphere summer sea ice now has an expected lifespan of 1 to 15 years, growing seasons around the world are under assault from the rising temperatures, coastal cities are in peril from rising waters, and Antarctic and Greenland glaciers are lurching toward the sea.

 

(A graphic of potential climate tipping points produced by the University of East Anglia. We should probably now also add East Antarctic Ice Sheet, East Africa drought, and expanding ocean dead zones to the list. It’s worth noting that these identified climate tipping points included a degree of uncertainty — meaning that temperature levels needed to set off these events weren’t fully nailed down, nor were the timeframes under which such potential scenarios were likely to occur. But it was generally assumed that crossing any of these tipping points would result in very harmful and wide-ranging impacts. To this point, it appears that we are in the process of crossing the coral bleaching, Arctic sea ice loss, increasing crop stress, expanding ocean dead zones, increasing global wildfires, worsening floods and droughts, and glacial destabilization tipping points at this time.)

All these events are happening with the world at 1.2 C hotter than 1880s averages and warming at what appears to be a rather swift rate. So we appear to be at a threshold now where dangerous and very harmful climate events are starting to occur. In other words, we’re starting to cross some of the forewarned climate tipping points. And these events can arise quite suddenly to produce wide-ranging impacts to human populations and the biodiversity of life on Earth.

The imperative to act by cutting human fossil fuel emissions as rapidly as possible couldn’t be more obvious or urgent. And as part of that imperative, it appears that the removal of fossil fuel backing politicians (like Trump, Scott Pruitt, James Inhoffe and other climate change denying republicans in the US) will be necessary to achieve any kind of rational response to this very real threat to pretty much everyone and everything living on Earth.

Links:

Eyewitness News in Australia

Zeke Hausfather

Widespread Coral Bleaching Strikes Great Barrier Reef Again in 2017

NOAA El Nino

Weirdly Warm 2017

University of East Anglia

Hat tip to Vic

Hat tip to BJ

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