In the glistening waters of Indonesia, shallow corals – the rain forests of the sea – teem with life. Or at least they did once. Towards the end of 2015 the corals started to die, leaving a bleak landscape behind. An international team of researchers investigated the causes of the die-off. Their findings, published recently in the EGU’s open access journal, Biogeosciences, are rather surprising.
Globally, corals face tough times. Increasing ocean-water temperatures (driven by a warming climate) are disrupting the symbiotic relationship between corals and the algae that live on (and in) them.
The algae, known as zooxanthellae, provide a food source for corals and give them their colour. Changing water temperatures and/or levels, the presence of contaminants or overexposure to sunlight, put corals under stress, forcing the algae to leave. If that happens, the corals turn white – they become bleached – and are highly susceptible to disease and death.
Triggered by the 2015-2016 El Niño, water temperatures in many coral reef regions across the globe have risen, causing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to declare the longest and most widespread coral bleaching event in recorded history. Now into its third year, the mass bleaching event is anticipated to cause major coral die-off in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef for the second consecutive year.
The team of researchers studying the Indonesian corals found that, unlike most corals globally, it’s not rising water temperatures which caused the recent die-off, but rather decreasing sea level.
While conducting a census of coral biodiversity in the Bunaken National Park, located in the northwest tip of Sulawesi (Indonesia), in late February 2016, the researchers noticed widespread occurrences of dead massive corals. Similar surveys, carried out in the springs of 2014 and 2015 revealed the corals to be alive and thriving.
In 2016, all the dying corals were found to have a sharp horizontal limit above which dead tissue was present and below which the coral was, seemingly, healthy. Up to 30% of the reef was affected by some degree of die-off.
The confinement of the dead tissue to the tops and flanks of the corals, lead the scientists to think that the deaths must be linked to variations in sea level rather than temperature, which would affect the organisms ubiquitously. To confirm the theory the researchers had to establish that there had indeed been fluctuations in sea level across the region between the springs of 2015 and 2016.
To do so they consulted data from regional tide-gauges. Though not located exactly on Bunaken, they provided a good first-order measure of sea levels over the period of time in question. To bolster their results, the team also used sea level height data acquired by satellites, known as altimetry data, which had sampling points just off Bunaken Island. When compared, the sea level data acquired by the tidal gauges and satellites correlated well.
The data showed that prior to the 2015-2016 El Niño, fluctuations in sea levels could be attributed to the normal ebb and flow of the tides. Crucially, between August and September 2015, they also showed a sharp decrease in sea level: in the region of 15cm (compared to the 1993-2016 mean). Though short-lived (probably a few weeks only), the period was long enough that the corals sustain tissue damage due to exposure to excessive UV light and air.
NOAA provides real-time Sea Surface Temperatures which identify areas at risk for coral bleaching. The Bunaken region was only put on alert in June 2016, long after the coral die-off started, therefore supporting the crucial role sea level fall played in coral mortality in Indonesia.
The link between falling sea level and El Niño events is not limited to Indonesia and the 2015-2016 event. When the researchers studied Absolute Dynamic Topography (ADT) data, which provides a measure of how sea level has change from 1992 to 2016, they found sea level falls matched with El Niño years.
The results of the study highlight that while all eyes are focused on the consequences of rising ocean temperatures and levels triggered by El Niño events, falling sea levels (also triggered by El Niño) could be having a, largely unquantified, harmful effect on corals globally.
By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer
References and resources
Ampou, E. E., Johan, O., Menkes, C. E., Niño, F., Birol, F., Ouillon, S., and Andréfouët, S.: Coral mortality induced by the 2015–2016 El-Niño in Indonesia: the effect of rapid sea level fall, Biogeosciences, 14, 817-826, doi:10.5194/bg-14-817-2017, 2017
Varotsos, C. A., Tzanis, C. G., and Sarlis, N. V.: On the progress of the 2015–2016 El Niño event, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 16, 2007-2011, doi:10.5194/acp-16-2007-2016, 2016.
What are El Niño and La Niña? – a video explainer by NOAA
Global sea level time series – global estimates of sea level rise based on measurements from satellite radar altimeters (NOAA/NESDIS/STAR, Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry)
El Niño prolongs longest global coral bleaching event – a NOAA News item
NOAA declares third ever global coral bleaching event – a NOAA active weather alert (Oct. 2015)
The 3rd Global Coral Bleaching Event – 2014/2017 – free resources for media and educators