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Ocean climates devastated by mass coral bleaching event in 2024

Ocean climates and the resilience of coral reefs are being put to the test worldwide following the commencement of a fourth mass coral bleaching event just eight years after the last one recorded by scientists in 2016.

Hanaan Hussain
17 April 2024, MVT 17:58
Hanaan Hussain
17 April 2024, MVT 17:58

Coral bleaching is a natural phenomena triggered by anomalous surges in sea temperatures that cause corals to experience intense and prolonged heat stress, which eventually leads them to expel the colorful algae zooxanthellae living inside their polyps resulting in the bleaching or whitening of corals.

The first mass coral bleaching event recorded for the Maldives and its reefs was in 1998, and the gap between coral bleaching events has been decreasing over the years as global ocean temperatures increase to record-levels under the climate crises. The largest mass coral bleaching event recorded in Maldives occurred in 2016, with the island nation's coral reefs having spent the last eight years adapting resilience and recovering from the loss.

The mass coral bleaching event in 2016 was when the most comprehensive study of the whitening phenomenon was conducted in Maldives. According to the report released by Maldives Maritime Research Institute (MMRI) on the study, the mass bleaching event in 2016 impacted 73% of all corals in the country.

Experts are now bracing for a similarly intense mass coral bleaching event in 2024 that could place vulnerable reef systems at the risk of irreparable damage.

Nizam Ibrahim, a marine biologist who led a team to assess the impact of the 2016 mass coral bleaching event told 'Mihaaru' that the current mass bleaching event was occurring at a time coral systems in Maldives have just started to recover from the mass bleaching event studied in 2016.

Nizam, who holds a Master's Degree in Marine Sciences and Management, has shared a post on the social media platform "X" with photos and videos that show mass coral bleaching around the main reef of Gaafu Dhaal atoll Rathafandhoo. He revealed that similar bleaching events were being reported from coral reefs in other parts of Gaafu Dhaal Atoll as well.

In his post, Nizam added that impact of coral bleaching was now evident across all genera of coral colonies in Huvadhoo Atoll.

"It's a distressing sight for those who care deeply about these ecosystems," Nizam's post read.

Nizam said that coral bleaching events would have a negative impact on the Maldives' revenue from tourism, fisheries and the supply of essential baitfish.

Forecasting more heat for the rest of the year, Nizam said that the damage from mass coral bleaching events across Maldives was expected to be very severe as many coral systems have already begun to show signs of whitening.

"All marine biologists predict that this years global mass coral bleaching event will be more impactful than the one recorded in 2016," said Nizam.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and The International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) have announced that we have now entered a fourth global mass coral bleaching event.

Incidents of coral bleaching due to heat stress have become a major point of concern across reef systems in Australia, Brazil and other countries.

"It is critical that the government, resorts and private individuals also contribute to efforts that will assess the scope and extent of this coral bleaching event," Nizam said.

According to frequent divers, previous incidents of coral bleaching were usually limited to coral reefs with ample exposure to sunlight. However, reports have been collected of corals at a greater depth of 20m also turning white as a result of bleaching caused by the current spike in global ocean temperatures.

The coral reefs around Hulhumalé in the central Kaafu atoll have also become visibly white as a result of coral bleaching, with similar reports coming out of other atolls in Maldives in recent weeks.

The Maldives Marine Research Institute (MMRI) had also issued a warning earlier in March that coral reefs around the country could be at risk of a mass bleaching event within this year as global warming reaches unprecedented levels due to the present climate crises.

As the months from February through to May are traditionally the warmest for the Maldives under the tropical climate, MMRI has requested for citizens and ocean enthusiasts to be on the look out for coral bleaching events near their islands. MMRI has called for the public to flag mass bleaching of coral reef systems by reporting it to them via email or through their website.

The Maldives Coral Institute has also set up a reporting mechanism to help track mass coral bleaching events as they sweep across the country as a result of extreme global warming.

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