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The third global bleaching event took its toll on Western Australia’s super-corals

Coral reefs in Australia’s northwest have experienced severe bleaching and coral mortality in 2016. Steeve Comeau, Author provided

The third global bleaching event took its toll on Western Australia’s super-corals

Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef has suffered through the worst bleaching event in its history, part of the world’s third mass bleaching event.

However, coral reefs from the other side of the continent have also experienced unprecedented bleaching and coral death. This is bad news because the unique coral reefs of Western Australia’s northwest are home to some of the toughest coral in the world.

Western Australia’s unique coral reefs

Although much less well-known, coral reefs in Western Australia are highly diverse. They include, for example, Australia’s largest fringing reef, the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef, as well as Australia’s largest inshore reef, Montgomery Reef which covers 380 square kilometres.

WA’s remote Kimberley region also features “super-corals” – corals that have adapted to a naturally extreme environment where tidal swings can be up 10m. These corals can therefore tolerate exposure to the air during low tide as well as extreme daily temperature swings.

My past research has shown that these naturally extreme conditions increase the heat tolerance of Kimberley corals but that they are nevertheless not immune to bleaching when water temperatures are unusually hot for too long.

Previously I had put these super-corals in tanks and subjected them to a three-week heatwave to see how they would respond, but I always wondered how they would cope in the wild where such events typically unfold over longer timescales. Unfortunately, I did not have to wait long to find out.

Kimberley reef exposed at low tide before… Verena Schoepf, Author provided
….and during the bleaching. Morane Le Nohaic, Author provided

The hottest years on record

2015 was the hottest year on record and 2016 will likely be hotter still. This has caused an unprecedented global coral reef crisis. Although global coral bleaching events already occurred in 1998 and 2010, this third global bleaching event is the longest on record and still ongoing.

Sadly, in WA the Kimberley region was hit the hardest. As part of Australia’s National Coral Bleaching Taskforce, colleagues and I conducted extensive monitoring before, during and after the predicted bleaching event along the entire WA coastline. In the southern Kimberley, we also carried out aerial surveys to assess the situation on a regional level.

Aerial view of a bleached inshore Kimberley reef in April 2016. Claire Ross and Steeve Comeau, Author provided

The severity and scale of bleaching that we observed in April was devastating. Almost all inshore Kimberley reefs that we surveyed had about 50% bleaching, including Montgomery Reef. Researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science found that offshore Kimberley reefs such as Scott Reef fared even worse, with 60-90% bleaching in shallow lagoon waters.

Many corals had already died from the severe bleaching in April, but the final death toll has only been revealed during visits to the Kimberley last month. Vast areas of coral reef are now dead and overgrown with algae, both at the inshore and offshore Kimberley reefs.

According to local Indigenous Rangers and Traditional Owners who assisted in the research, this appears to be unprecedented. Such events had never previously been described in their rich local history of the coastal environment.

Bleached staghorn coral on inshore Kimberley reefs in April 2016. Verena Schoepf
Dead staghorn coral on the same reefs in October 2016. Verena Schoepf

Some good news

There was nevertheless some good news. Corals living in intertidal areas, where they regularly experience exposure to air, stagnant water, and extreme temperature fluctuations, bleached less than corals from below the low-tide mark, where conditions are far more moderate. And importantly, the majority of intertidal corals were able to fully recover within a few months.

Similarly, researchers from the Western Australian Museum and Curtin University confirmed last month that intertidal coral reefs in the central Kimberley (Bonaparte Archipelago) were in great condition.

Overall, these observations confirm the findings from my past research which showed that highly-variable, extreme temperature environments can boost the bleaching resistance of corals.

It is also important to note that the 2016 severe bleaching event in WA was restricted to the Kimberley region. Ningaloo Reef as well as coral reefs in the Pilbara and the Abrolhos Islands all escaped the bleaching. This is great news because some of these locations are still recovering from major bleaching in 2010-11 and 2013.

Healthy coral at Ningaloo Reef in 2016. Morane Le Nohaic

The future of WA’s coral reefs

Although it is now clear that WA’s coral reefs are at risk of bleaching during both El Niño (as in 2016) and La Niña years (as in 2010-11), they have some advantages over other reefs that may hopefully allow them to recover from bleaching more quickly and stay healthy in the long term.

For example, most of WA’s coral reefs are located far away from major population centres and are thus less affected by environmental threats such as poor water quality (though other threats such as oil and gas exploration do exist). We also know that their isolation, particularly in the case of offshore reefs, helped them recover from previous mass bleaching events.

Finally, it is critical that we identify coral populations worldwide that are already naturally adapted to higher temperatures and have a greater bleaching resistance, such as the Kimberley corals.

These super-corals, while not immune to climate change, should be a priority for research into the limits of coral tolerance, as well as conservation efforts.