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The Devastating Impact of Coral Bleaching

The devastating coral bleaching event that is currently sweeping the globe and leaving devastated reefs in its wake is now set to continue through to 2017, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

This bleaching event has already been ongoing for over two years and with predictions now stating that it is showing no signs of stopping, fears are growing for the planet's coral reefs. The event is now the most widespread in recorded history and has already begun to carve chaos in the underwater ecosystem.

Corals around Hawaii have been hit twice, Fiji has also felt the brunt of the gusts of warm water that have resulted in the deaths of both its corals and many fish and now it's crunch time for the largest coral reef system in the world, the Great Barrier Reef. Conservation groups across the world are beginning to unite as they agree that it is time to act, but what exactly does all of this mean?

What is Coral Bleaching?

Put simply, coral bleaching takes place in a three staged process. When coral is healthy, it houses algae inside of it and the two components work together to function. However, when environmental factors begin to change and the coral becomes stressed, the algae leave the protective tissue of the coral and this then leaves the coral bleached, and vulnerable. Without the algae inside of it, the coral loses its bright colour but more importantly than that, it loses its main source of food and when left without algae for too long, the coral begins to die.

Bleaching typically occurs after a disruption to the natural environment has happened, this could be as simple as higher levels of pollution or as technical as the ongoing effects of the El Nino weather system, but the fact remains that whatever the cause, while some corals do recover from bleaching events, others die. While NOAA researchers have stated that it is too early to assess on a global scale just how much coral we have already lost, a recent survey they conducted has shown that as much as 35% of coral has already died in the Great Barrier Reef region.

Should the coral reefs completely die off, we will undergo a ripple effect with disastrous outcomes. The first to suffer this loss will be the marine species, coral reefs are believed to be one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world and as a result their loss will mean that many creatures no longer have a source of food or protection. But after that, even we will start to feel the full force of this disastrous phenomenon. Losses to tourism will be the highest economic downfall but before long the fisheries will begin to struggle and many coastal towns and cities will feel the brunt as they lose the natural coastal protection that the reefs provided them.

Why is this happening?

There are several reasons behind the unprecedented rate and continuation of this worldwide disaster but the largest factor, as it stands at the moment, seems to be due to the El Niño weather pattern that has left ecosystems across the planet in turmoil. The El Niño climate system, characterised by its unusually high ocean waters in the Pacific, has exhausted the coral over the past three seasons and as La Niña takes its place with high ocean temperatures later on this year, experts are worried that the reefs are set to get little respite. It isn't just the weather system that has brought on this onslaught though, climate change resulting from water and air pollutants have made a significant contribution to the rising temperatures and low tides in some areas have left the corals exposed to sunlight, all of which has had an impact on this fast moving bleaching event.

So, what can you do?

There are a number of things that you can do to help prevent further coral bleaching and they may all be simpler than you think they would be. You can leave the scientists with the hard job of working out the technical movements and reasons behind this event while at home you can make a few small but significant changes to your lifestyle. Yes, believe it or not reducing your carbon footprint in your daily life won't just help you to save energy (and keep costs down!), it will also help to keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere which in turn helps combat climate change and keeps the ocean temperatures naturally well regulated!

If you're dedicated to making a difference, try these simple things to help prevent any further bleaching events taking place in the future:

• Try walking, biking or using public transport instead of driving next time you need to leave the house.

• Only use ecological or organic fertilisers. While you may think that this is ridiculous as you live nowhere near a coral reef, these products quickly flow into the water system and add to the number of pollutants that are already present within the oceans.

• Dispose of your rubbish correctly. While this may seem a bit offhand and unrelated to the coral reefs, any unwanted rubbish adds to the pollution of the water and can harm both the reef and the fish that live within it. Dispose of it correctly and you'll do your bit to prevent bleaching!

• Plant a tree. Either do this by yourself in your back garden or get involved with organisations such as The Nature Conservancy who run tree planting campaigns like the Plant a Billion project. Trees help to reduce runoff into the oceans and also help to regulate the rising temperatures of our planet so get planting!

• Volunteer on Coral Reef projects. If you don't live near a coral reef, combine your next holiday with a volunteering project and dive into the ocean to help conserve these iconic ecosystems. If you do live near a coral reef, well, what are you waiting for? Frontier has plenty of marine conservation projects, so take a look at the kind of things you could be doing and book on to spend time enjoying the beauty of the underwater world whilst helping to maintain it for future generations!

• Last but definitely not least, spread the word. Encourage others to take these small, but vital steps to help conserve the coral reefs. This is a global issue and it requires a global effort in order to ensure we have a successful outcome.

Find out more about the marine conservation projects that Frontier offer.

By Shannon Clark - Online Journalism Intern

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