Sorry, your browser is unable to play this video. Coral bleaching has changed the Great Barrier Reef forever
That splurge of warm water bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef, through Indonesia, Japan and over to the Caribbean.
Then just five years later, during another El Nio, another bleaching event stretched its way around the globe.
By then, it was already clear what was causing all this.
A paper in 1990 warned these events were being caused by climate change and bleaching will probably continue and increase until coral-dominated reefs no longer exist.
At that time
the 1982 event was described as the most widespread coral bleaching and mortality in recorded historybut today there is debate about whether it and the 1987 events severity was bad enough to count as a true global bleaching event.
That hardly matters now. In an age of climate change, records dont last long.
In 1997-98, the world was hit by a second extreme El Nio the strongest seen to date. Figures of how much coral died that year are hard to confirm but it is thought
16% of the worlds reefs were destroyed in a matter of months. About half of those might have been lost forever.
Mass bleachings some global, some not have continued ever since but until this year 1998 held on to the record for the worst yet. That was probably a result of an extended La Nia-like phase that suppressed temperatures until now. During that time, warm water was being buried in the Pacific Ocean, suppressing surface temperatures, and keeping bleachings in check.
The year 2016 looks set to blow 1998 out of the water. By some measures its the longest global bleaching event in history and, on the Great Barrier Reef, its definitely the worst.
The reef has been hit by at least three significant mass bleachings in recorded history, each one worse than the last. The first coincided with the global bleaching in 1998, then it got hit in 2002, and then again this year.
A Guardian analysis of the three events, based on data from aerial surveys, shows the increasing severity of each event, and how they smashed different parts of the reef.
Comparison maps of three major bleaching events in 1998, 2002 and 2016
The mechanism behind this incredible new trend is obvious and well understood. As
Bloomberg Businessweek famously said on its cover after Hurricane Sandy, Its global warming, stupid.
Since 1950 more than 90% of the excess heat our carbon emissions have trapped in the atmosphere has gone into the oceans. As a result their surface temperature has increased by 1C in just the past 35 years.
That puts the water much closer to the limit of what coral can bear. Then, when a surge of even warmer water comes through often as a result of the irregular El Nio cycle corals over large stretches get stressed, bleach and die.
So well understood is the mechanism that satellite data on water temperature is a good proxy for coral bleaching. Using that understanding, the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration looks at satellite data and produces bleaching alerts that represent a predicted stress response from coral.
In data produced exclusively for the Guardian by Mark Eakin, head of Coral Reef Watch at Noaa, we can now reveal exactly how stressful ocean temperatures have been increasing on the Great Barrier Reef over the 34 years that satellite data has been available.
Coral stress index calculated from ocean temperatures from 1982 to 2016
Since 1982, just after mass bleachings were seen for the first time, the data shows that the average proportion of the Great Barrier Reef exposed to temperatures where bleaching or death is likely has increased from about 11% a year to about 27% a year.
Eakin says looking at that data revealed a clear trend that hadnt been quantified before. In seeing that what it immediately showed was that there was a real background pattern of increasing levels of thermal stress.
Combined with other stressors hitting the reef, this is having a devastating impact. Over that period, half the coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef has been lost and thats before the mass bleaching this year is taken into account.
That data has limitations its not direct bleaching, but stress inferred from temperature readings. And it lumps extreme levels of stress like what is being seen around Lizard Island now with anything that is expected to cause mortality.
Despite that, it reveals the way global warming is leading to more regular bleaching and mortality.
While there was a considerable amount of variability from El Nios and other things there was an obvious upward trend in the data, Eakin says. So youre looking at the background warming, which is having a major effect on the corals.
And just looking at the surface temperature of water around the Great Barrier Reef over the past 100 years leaves little doubt about the role of climate change.
Chart of coral sea surface temperatures from the Bureau of Meteorology, showing a general increase over time
Adding to this correlational data, researchers have examined exactly how much more likely the warm conditions on the Great Barrier Reef were as a result of carbon emissions.
They ran climate models thousands of times, and simulated a world with human CO2 emissions and a world without them. They found that in a world without humans and their carbon emissions, the conditions on the Great Barrier Reef that caused the current bleaching would have been virtually impossible. Today theyre still unusual, but have been made at least 175 times more likely as a result of our carbon emissions.
In a world without humans, its not quite impossible that youd get March sea surface temperatures as warm as this year, but its extremely unlikely, Andrew King, a lead author of the study from the University of Melbourne,
told the Guardian in April.
But what was even more concerning was how quickly things are predicted to get worse. In the current climate its unusual but not exceptional. By the mid 2030s it will be average. And beyond that it will be cooler than normal if it was as warm as this year.
That means the Great Barrier Reef is likely to be hit with conditions like this, on average, every second year in fewer than 20 years.
Many reef biologists approached by the Guardian have said this could mean its too late for the Great Barrier Reef. We may have already made its death inevitable. But since theres still a chance its not too late, they all said it was imperative to keep fighting.
Yes, maybe its too late, Marshall
told the Guardian. But he said that was no reason to not try to save it. Im not going to sit back and buy a Hummer and just let it all slide.
And there have been signs that coral is more resilient than biologists used to think it might be able to adapt and evolve and, while the weaker corals are probably doomed, maybe the stronger corals will be able to spread and take over. In some places, maybe reefs will even migrate further from the equator.
These tiny signs of hope are all biologists and conservationists can cling to. With biology there are always things around the corner that we dont know, Marshall says. These things are fantastically resilient and biologically programmed for survival.
But hope requires action. And there are some powerful forces who dont want to see light shone on on this particular murder.
And murder it is: weve known for decades that were to blame.
Its the great white lie, Col McKenzie, the chief executive of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators,
told a Queensland newspaper in April. Its not dead, white and dying. Its under stress but it will bounce back.
He tells the Guardian hes furious at the media and at the scientists who have been making a big deal out of the bleaching event: What Im seeing is that my industry is being held out for ransom and is the whipping boy for the Greenies who want to be anti-coalmining. And, frankly, I think thats bloody disgusting.
He represents an industry that, as he puts, is tied by the hip pocket to the health of the reef.
In 2011-12 it was estimated tourism centred on the Great Barrier Reef generated $5.7bn for the economy and created 69,000 jobs.
McKenzie says the media coverage of the bleaching is a bigger risk to the industry than the bleaching itself. He says people are less likely visit the reef now that they think its in worse condition.
Jumping on this concern, the Australian government looks to be doing everything it can to downplay the bleaching. In May the Guardian revealed the Australian department of environment had
intervened to have every mention of the Great Barrier Reef and indeed every mention of the country scrubbed from the final version of a UN report on climate change and world heritage sites. As a result, Australia was the only continent on the planet not mentioned.
When confronted with the revelation, the government told the Guardian it did it because: Recent experience in Australia had shown that negative commentary about the status of world heritage properties impacted on tourism.
The revelation came shortly after Australias environment minister, Greg Hunt, told a Queensland newspaper after seeing a David Attenborough documentary about the Great Barrier Reef: The key point that I had from seeing the first of the three parts is that clearly, the worlds Great Barrier Reef is still the worlds Great Barrier Reef.
The article ran with the headline: Reports of reefs death greatly exaggerated: Attenborough.
In fact, Attenborough said that the Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger. And later: The twin perils brought by climate change an increase in the temperature of the ocean and in its acidity threaten its very existence.
Then in May and June, these concerns caused a split in the national coral bleaching taskforce, which was set up to monitor the bleaching event. Its made up of 10 Australian institutions, some of them government agencies, and others university research centres and is led by Terry Hughes from James Cook University.
The group was about to release the results of its coral mortality surveys when two leading government agencies pulled out of the announcement.
Hughes and his university colleagues released the results anyway, on Monday 30 May, but with only part of the data.
They announced that 35% of the corals are now dead or dying in the northern and central sections of the Great Barrier Reef.
On Thursday of that week, Col McKenzie went on the attack, saying the results were utter rubbish.
It seems that some marine scientists have decided to use the bleaching event to highlight their personal political beliefs and lobby for increased funding in an election year, he said in a media release.
The results of surveys from the government agency the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority told a different story, he said.
A day later the rest of the results were released by the government agencies. Attached to these was a long media release that aimed to dispel perceived exaggerations of the damage and highlight corals ability to recover.
Russell Reichelt, the marine park authoritys chairman and chief executive,
told the Australian newspaper the agency had split from the group release because it wasnt telling the whole story. He was quoted as saying that the maps illustrating the coral mortality exaggerated the impact, and that the exaggeration suits the purpose of the people sending it out.
The story ran on the front page of Australias only national newspaper declaring that activist scientists were distorting the data. Marine park head denies coral bleaching crisis, it screamed.
But the authoritys actual data, which revealed a striking
22% of coral on the Great Barrier Reef had been killed, was entirely consistent with the figures released earlier that week from the university partners something Reichelt later acknowledged on social media.
Its clear that a cabal of climate change deniers, worried tourism operators, and a conservative government have tried to whitewash the environmental disaster unfolding over the Great Barrier Reef.
McKenzie is no climate change denier and is quick to agree that climate change has caused the bleaching. But he has taken signs of corals adaptability to heart and is sure that the coral will adapt to higher temperatures under climate change. He thinks the reef will be fine.
He says the scientists who are making a lot of noise about the bleaching have overstepped a line. The scientists decided to make some fairly strong statements about the health of the reef and some fairly outrageous ones at that. I dont think thats what science is about. I believe scientists should be reporting the facts as they are, not sensationalising the issue.
The fear that the media spotlight on the bleaching will stop people wanting to visit the reef runs deep in the tourism industry. So much so that tour operators have
reportedly been routinely refusing to take conservationists, media and politicians to bleached parts of the reef.
But that alliance may be breaking down, with some tourism operators on the reef getting worried about its long-term health.
Many tourism operators, they dont want people not to come to the reef, so theyve been reluctant to speak out, says John Rumney, who has run diving and fishing tours on the Great Barrier Reef for the past four decades. They are worried it will have a negative impact on the short-term cash flow.
Rumney says thats short-sighted since unless people speak up now there will be no reef in the future, and the industry wont exist. He and other operators have broken away from the crowd and are speaking out. (McKenzie describes them as the fringe dwellers of the industry.)
the Guardian revealed that a group of more than 170 individuals and businesses in the tourism industry had written an open letter, published in a north Queensland newspaper, urging people to recognise the severity of the bleaching, and begging the government to take stronger action to save the reef.
We are proud of our stewardship of this incredible resource, they wrote. We understand its value lies in looking after it. We hope the majority of the reef can recover but Australia must start doing everything it can to tackle the root cause of the coral bleaching, which is global warming.
And, speaking to other tourism operators, it doesnt appear these people are industry outsiders as McKenzie suggests.
Paul Crocombe is the manager of Adrenalin Dive, a business based in Townsville that takes tourists out to see the reef. He has been diving on the reef for more than 30 years and has been working in tourism for more than 20.