Coral Bleaching Predictions for Coral Sea, Coral Triangle

by Mallika Naguran

Singapore 26.1.2009. Some of the world's important marine environments will see damage due to widespread and severe coral bleaching. The bleaching due to warmer-than-usual waters began in late 2008; this phenomenon is predicted to intensify over the next few weeks, turning colourful corals to bone white, and alerting NGOs worldwide to take firmer actions.

A report from the US Government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts severe bleaching for parts of the Coral Sea, which lies adjacent to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and the Coral Triangle in the Indo-Pacific.The following figure shows the most recent global 15-week Coral Bleaching Outlook from the 06 January 2009 model run.

Corals to suffer from bleaching due to raised temperatures.

The NOAA Coral Reef Watch (CRW) Bleaching Thermal Stress Outlook indicates that the greatest chance of bleaching during the upcoming austral summer will be in the region bounded by Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the northern Great Barrier Reef (GBR), and New Caledonia. Model runs now suggest that all of the GBR may experience some degree of bleaching this year.

Currently, the forecast system suggests that thermal stress with a high potential for bleaching possible in that region with thermal stress in a band stretching from the Coral Triangle region southeast beyond Fiji and perhaps to French Polynesia.

“This forecast bleaching episode will be caused by increased water temperatures and is the kind of event we can expect on a regular basis if average global temperatures rise above 2 degrees,” said Richard Leck, Climate Change Strategy Leader for WWF’s Coral Triangle Program.

The bleaching could have a devastating impact on coral reef ecosystems, killing coral and destroying food chains. There would be severe impacts for communities in Australia and the region who depend on the oceans for their livelihoods.

The Coral Triangle, stretching from the Philippines to Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, is home to 75 per cent of all known coral species. WWF reports that more than 120 million people rely on its marine resources.

“Regular bleaching episodes in this part of the world will have a massive impact on the region’s ability to sustain local communities. In the Pacific many of the Small Island Developing States, such as the Solomon Islands, rely largely on the coast and coastal environments such as coral reefs for food supply. This is a region where alternative sources of income and food are limited.

“Time is crucial and Australia needs to step up to the plate. Following the Government’s lack of resolve to seriously reduce future domestic carbon emissions, Australia has a huge role to play in assisting Coral Triangle countries and people to adapt to the changes in their climate,“ said Richard.

The Australian Government this week announced a 2020 target for reducing its greenhouse gas pollution by 5 per cent, which WWF criticised as completely inadequate. Reductions of at least 25 per cent by 2020 are needed to set the world on a pathway to meaningful cuts in greenhouse pollution.

Australia’s Coral Sea, which will also be affected by coral bleaching and climate change, is a pristine marine wilderness covering almost a million square kilometres and is extraordinarily rich in marine life, including sharks and turtles, with a series of spectacular reefs rising thousands of metres from the sea floor.

WWF is urging the Australian government to declare the Coral Sea a marine protected area, as well as working to establish a network of marine protected areas that will assist ocean environments to adapt to the changes caused by rising temperatures, and to absorb the impacts from human activity.

Other Threats

Oceans are intensified by other huge threats such as heightened cardon emissions and pollution.

“If nothing changes, we are looking at a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide in less than 50 years,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin, Head of the IUCN Global Marine Programme, one of the organizations behind the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN). “As this carbon is absorbed, the oceans will become more acidic, which is seriously damaging a wide range of marine life from corals to plankton communities and from lobsters to seagrasses.”

Hope is also found in the ability of some corals to recover after major bleaching events, caused by warming waters, adapting to climate change threats. However, The Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2008, a report released by GCRMN in Washington, DC, in December 2008 indicated that the recent downward trends have not been reversed in the last four years. And corals have a higher chance of survival against climate change if other human threats are minimized.

“The report details the strong scientific consensus that climate change must be limited to the absolute minimum. If nothing is done to substantially cut emissions, we could effectively lose coral reefs as we know them, with major coral extinctions,” saysClive Wilkinson, Coordinator of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network.

“Ten years after the world’s biggest coral bleaching event,we know that reefs can recover given the chance. Unfortunately, impacts on the scale of 1998 will reoccur in the near future, and there’s no time to lose if we want to give reefs and people a chance to suffer as little as possible,” says Dr David Obura, Chair of the IUCN Climate Change and Coral Reefs working group and Director of theCoastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean Programme (CORDIO) in East Africa.

What is the Coral Triangle?

The Coral Triangle is the most diverse marine region on the planet, matched in its importance to life on Earth only by the Amazon rainforest and the Congo basin. Defined by marine areas containing more than 500 species of reef-building coral, it covers 5.4 million square kilometres of ocean across six countries in the Indo-Pacific – Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste.

What is the Coral Sea?

The Coral Sea is located off the north-eastern coast of Australia. The area of Coral Sea within Australian jurisdiction covers approximately 1,000,000 sq km extending east from the boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) out to the boundary of Australia's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Australia's Coral Sea borders the Southeast edge of the Coral Triangle in the North (Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands), forming a natural geographic extension of the Coral Triangle and a link to the Great Barrier Reef.

NGO Information:

The GCRMN is a network of people, governments, institutes and NGOs in more than 80 countries, with many partners, including: CORDIO, Reef Check, CARICOMP, Project AWARE Foundation and AGRRA. All reports are available through

Project AWARE Foundation, a registered nonprofit organization, works in direct partnership with divers and water enthusiasts to conserve underwater environments through education, advocacy and action. To get involved in environmental activities and make a lasting difference visit

WWF is active in conservation programmes in over 22 countries in the Asia Pacific region. Visit