As the climate changes, coral bleaching is predicted to become more frequent and severe. Sea temperature increases and coral stress from other impacts may increase corals' vulnerability to bleaching.
As part of its Reef Health Incident Response System, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has a Coral Bleaching Response Plan for detecting and responding to coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.
What is coral bleaching
Many types of coral have a special symbiotic relationship with a tiny marine algae (zooxanthallae) that live inside corals' tissue and are very efficient food producers that provide up to 90 per cent of the energy corals require to grow and reproduce.
Coral bleaching occurs when the relationship between the coral host and zooxanthallae, which give coral much of their colour, breaks down. Without the zooxanthallae, the tissue of the coral animal appears transparent and the coral's bright white skeleton is revealed.
Corals begin to starve once they bleach. While some corals are able to feed themselves, most corals struggle to survive without their zooxanthallae.
If conditions return to normal, corals can regain their zooxanthallae, return to their normal colour and survive. However, this stress is likely to cause decreased coral growth and reproduction, and increased susceptibility to disease.
Bleached corals often die if the stress persists. Coral reefs that have high rates of coral death following bleaching can take many years or decades to recover.
What causes coral bleaching
The main cause of coral bleaching is heat stress resulting from high sea temperatures.Temperature increases of only one degree celsius for only four weeks can trigger bleaching events.
If these temperatures persist for longer periods (eight weeks or more) corals begin to die. High water temperatures can affect reefs at regional and global scale.
Other stressors can also cause bleaching, including freshwater inundation (low salinity) and poor water quality from sediment or pollutant run-off.
Coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef has experienced mass coral bleaching events in the past.
In 1998, there was a global mass bleaching event where 50 per cent of the reefs on the Great Barrier Reef suffered bleaching. During this time, sea temperatures on the Great Barrier Reef were the highest ever recorded.
Mass bleaching also occurred in 2002, with 60 per cent of reefs were affected. This was the largest coral bleaching event on record. Two periods of hot weather resulted in sea surface temperatures a few degrees centigrade higher than long-term summer maxima.
In both events, about five per cent of the Great Barrier Reef's coral reefs were severely damaged.
A Vulnerability Assessment: of the issues that could have far-reaching consequences for the Great Barrier Reef.
Current Conditions: Environmental and climatic forecasts for the Great Barrier Reef