As a child my life was intimately connected to the ocean. I lived my first two decades in the Hawaiian Islands surfing, diving and taking long ocean swims. My mother used to say that the ocean was her doctor, her psychologist and close to her religion. Our family life in the islands was tied to the health of the ocean.

Last week when I heard the news of the worlds' third massive coral bleaching, the first thing I did was call my sister Nancy who still lives on Maui. She is a certified Eyes of the Reef monitor and spends part of each day checking reefs off the West Maui coastline. Nancy has been observing those reefs through almost daily swims for decades. 

That conversation put the crisis in startlingly real terms for me. Our favourite childhood snorkelling spots are losing their coral and have the potential to become underwater wastelands.

My sister described with horror and urgency how changes to Hawaii's coral reefs can literally be observed from week to week and are like nothing she has ever witnessed.

The coral bleaching on the back of climate change and an El Nino summer is not limited to Hawaii. We are living in a period where extreme weather is becoming the new normal, and for all our oceans the outlook is increasingly bleak.

We are living in a period where extreme weather is becoming the new normal, and for all our oceans the outlook is increasingly bleak.

In Australia we have just experienced one of the hottest starts to October on record. This is compounded by the fact that 2015 is already being declared the hottest year in more than a century and follows a record-breaking 2014, which was the hottest since systematic records began even without the help of El Nino. In fact, 13 of the 15 hottest years have occurred since 2000 and this trend is not letting up. 

For some of us, bursts of warm weather in October translates to a welcome early taste of summer – but for our oceans the implications of increasingly hot trends, and record-breaking weather are dire.

Increasing ocean temperatures from El Nino events and global warming are currently impacting the Pacific and are expected to affect 38 per cent of the world's reefs by the end of this year, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coral Reef Watch program.

Record hot ocean temperatures are causing fragile coral to release the algae that provide much of their food, causing them to turn white, become extremely vulnerable and often die. This is made worse by the presence of a growing patch of hot water called "The Blob" that has stagnated in the eastern Pacific ravaging coral reefs. Scientists have described the potential impact on the Great Barrier Reef as "truly terrifying".

These revelations should concern not just divers but everyone, because our oceans support the livelihoods of half a billion people, and make up the richest, most productive ecosystems on earth after rainforests. Although coral reefs only make up 1 per cent of the ocean floor, it is estimated that over 1 million species live in and around coral reefs.

To make this looming catastrophe even more sobering, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland, recently declared the earlier estimate that most oceans would get too hot for their corals on a yearly basis by 2040-2050 as optimistic.

In other words, projections by scientists that corals would be eliminated by mid-century - along with the species they support and all that they provide for people on Earth - could be overly optimistic. These earlier models did not take into account the likelihood that climate change would drive more frequent extreme El Ninos or that greenhouse gases would more than double by 2040-2050. 

Without stronger global action to reduce greenhouse pollution, we will far exceed original coral bleaching estimates.

Without stronger global action to reduce greenhouse pollution, we will far exceed original coral bleaching estimates. Scientists monitoring these changes are calling for the issues of coral bleaching and ocean acidification to be a key priority at the Paris climate talks in December.

This is yet another reason why global leaders need to step up and every country - including Australia - need to be make commitments that genuinely keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius and get us on a path toward decarbonisation.

Global warming is no longer a future generation issue. It is having devastating impacts now, and our coral reefs are a glaring example.  Without stronger action on climate change we will lose life-sustaining eco-systems and that includes our incredible coral reefs.


  • This article firsty appeared at the Brisbane Times
  • Image by Catlin Seaview Survey

Suzanne Harter

Climate Change Campaigner