Written for Years of Living Dangerously | 23 November 2016
For the last two years our team has been following an unprecedented global climate change catastrophe. It is an event that has killed up to 20% of the world’s corals as well as a staggering amount of marine life that directly depended on them. It is the third global coral bleaching event.
As its name suggests, it is not a completely new phenomenon, there have been two other (much shorter) events in 1998 and 2010, however these last two events went largely unnoticed by the world’s media. They happened in the ocean, out of sight and out of mind.
We were determined to make this current global bleaching event different. This time we were more prepared. There was the satellite technology to accurately predict and track the die-off and also the technology to record and reveal it to the world with our specially developed 360-degree cameras. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last two years, as featured in the recent episode of the Years of Living Dangerously. We were there when it started in late 2014 and we have been the only team chasing it around the world as part of project called the XL Catlin Seaview Survey.
Explaining the coral bleaching can get a little complicated, but put simply, the ocean has warmed to such a degree, that corals can no longer cope with normal spikes in temperature during especially hot years. As a result vast areas of corals lose their colour and their flesh turns clear exposing their white skeletons underneath (a process known as bleaching). If the heat doesn’t subside or the impact is too intense the corals can die on mass — 22% of corals on the Great Barrier Reef did just that this year.
It’s not really surprising that we are seeing these kinds of impacts underwater — 93% of climate change heat is absorbed by the ocean — it’s undoubtedly the front line of the issue. The ocean is soaking up a staggering amount of energy. If that heat had been absorbed by the first 10 km of the atmosphere, daily temperatures would be 36 degrees Centigrade hotter (on average) today. No wonder this heat is killing coral reefs, kelp forests, even mangroves on mass.
Diving into the ocean is like diving into the future, for the ocean is a giant heat sink that will continue to heat the atmosphere for decades to come, even if we prevent further carbon emissions. It is only a matter of time before we see similar ecosystem collapses on land. The longer we take to resolve the issue, the worse these collapses will become.
The ocean is simply delaying the impacts of climate change on land and it’s giving us a dangerously false impression of the issue. To see the issue clearly we need to put our heads underwater (not in the sand where they are currently mostly buried). That’s why we do what we do at The Ocean Agency, revealing the oceans for all to see — what’s happening there can no longer remain out of sight and out of mind.