The Great Barrier Reef has experienced a third mass coral bleaching event in five years, according to Terry Hughes, the scientist carrying out aerial surveys over hundreds of individual reefs.
With three days of a nine-day survey to go, “we know this is a mass bleaching event and it’s a severe one,” Hughes told reporters.
It follows the worst outbreaks of mass bleaching on record killing about half the shallow water corals on the world’s biggest reef system in 2016 and 2017.
Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University and one of the world’s leading authorities on bleaching and the Great Barrier Reef, said: “We know enough now that [the bleaching] is more severe than in 1998 and 2002. How it sits with 2016 and 2017 we are not sure yet.”
A fuller picture would be possible after the final three days of surveying, he said.
Working with a staff member from the Australian government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Hughes has assessed bleaching levels on 682 reefs from a spotter plane flying at about 150m.
Hughes said the first four days of aerial surveys last week covered almost 500 reefs from the Torres Strait to Cairns. They revealed a mixed picture, with some severe bleaching on reefs closer to shore, but outer “ribbon reefs” in the far north escaping damage.
He said surveys this week in the central parts of the reef had found extensive bleaching at levels “comparable to 2017,” when it is estimated that about 22 percent of shallow-water coral along the reef’s 2300km died.
About 80 reefs between Tully and Townsville were badly bleached, he said.
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