Terry Hughes, director of the reef studies centre at James Cook University in Queensland, says the extent of the damage has serious implications. Older corals take longer to bounce back from bleaching and will probably not have a chance to recover before the next bleaching event occurs, he said. And dying coral affects much more than the coral itself, harming other creatures that rely on coral for food and shelter.
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Experts say the bleaching has been triggered by global warming and El Nino, a warming of parts of the Pacific Ocean that changes weather worldwide. Hot water puts stress on coral, causing it to turn white and become vulnerable to disease. This is the third mass bleaching event in 18 years to strike the Great Barrier Reef, and in each case the areas that suffered the worst bleaching were those where the water was hottest for the longest period of time, Hughes said.
This time, the southern half of the reef was spared largely due to a lucky break that arrived in the form of a tropical cyclone. The remnants of the storm which had lashed the South Pacific brought cloud cover and heavy rains to the region, cooling the ocean enough to stop bleaching that had just begun in the south. About 95% of the coral in the southern portion of the reef has survived. Last year, the United Nations’ heritage body expressed concern about the state of the Great Barrier Reef and urged Australia to boost its conservation efforts.