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Geosciences Column: How El Niño triggered Indonesia corals die-off

Geosciences Column: How El Niño triggered Indonesia corals die-off

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.

Bunaken reef flats. (a)Close-up of one Heliopora coerula colony with clear tissue mortality on the upper part of the colonies; (b)same for a Porites lutea colony; (c) reef flat Porites colonies observed at low spring tide in May 2014. Even partially above water a few hours per month in similar conditions, the entire colonies were alive. (d) A living Heliopora coerula (blue coral) community in 2015 in a keep-up position relative to mean low sea level, with almost all the space occupied by corals. In that case, a 15 cm sea level fall will impact most of the reef flat. (e–h) Before–after comparison of coral status for colonies visible in (c). In (e), healthy Poritea lutea (yellow and pink massive corals) reef flat colonies in May 2014, observed at low spring tide. The upper part of colonies is above water, yet healthy; (f) same colonies in February 2016. The white lines visualize tissue mortality limit. Large Porites colonies (P1, P2) at low tide levels in 2014 are affected, while lower colonies (P3) are not. (g) P1 colony in 2014. (h) Viewed from another angle, the P1 colony in February 2016. (i) Reef flat community with scattered Heliopora colonies in February 2016, with tissue mortality and algal turf overgrowth. Taken from E. E. Ampou et al. 2016.

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.

Sea-level data from the Bitung (east North Sulawesi) tide-gauge, referenced against Bako GPS station. On top, sea level anomalies measured by the Bitung tide-gauge station (low-quality data), and overlaid on altimetry ADT anomaly data for the 1993– 2016 period. Note the gaps in the tide-gauge time series. Middle: Bitung tide-gauge sea level variations (high-quality data, shown here from 1986 till early 2015) with daily mean and daily lowest values. Bottom, a close-up for the 2008–2015 period. Taken from E. E. Ampou et al. 2016.

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

Coral Reef Watch Satellite Monitoring 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

What is coral bleaching? – an infographic by NOAA
The ENSO (El Niño–Southern Oscillation) Blog by Climate.gov (a NOAA resource)

EGU 2017 General Assembly programme is now online!

EGU 2017: Registration open & townhall and splinter meeting requests

The EGU General Assembly 2017 programme is available here. Take a look and – if you haven’t already – register for the conference by 16 March to make the early registration rates!

Last year, we updated the scientific programme of the General Assemby and it includes Union-wide Sessions, such as Special Scientific Events (Medal Lectures, Great Debates and many more) short courses and topical meetings, feedback and networking events and outreach, education and media sessions, to name a few.  The Disciplinary Sessions, encompass the oral, poster and PICO sessions covering the full spectrum of the Earth, planetary and space sciences.

There are several ways to access the programme, so you can explore the sessions with ease:

  • Browse by day & time: view the oral, poster and PICO sessions by their time and location, each sorted chronologically by conference day, time block and programme group
  • Browse by session: view the scientific sessions and their oral, poster and PICO sub-sessions by programme group
  • Personal programme: a great tool to generate your own personal programme, just select the specific presentations or sessions you’re interested in to create your own personal schedule
  • Sessions of ECS interest: this is a list of sessions of particular interest for early career scientists
  • Papers of special interest: take a look at the abstracts that were selected by their respective session conveners to be of interest to the press, media and the public

Want more ways to browse the programme? We’ll be releasing the EGU 2017 mobile app closer to the conference, stay tuned!

We look forward to seeing you in Vienna for the General Assembly (23 – 28 April 2017).

February GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

Comparing the TRAPPIST-1 planets

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, as well as  unique and quirky research news, this monthly column aims to bring you the best of the Earth and planetary sciences from around the web.

Major story

Undoubtedly the story of the month is the discovery of a star system of seven Earth-sized planets just 40 light-years away from our own. What makes the finding so exciting is that three of the planets lie in the habitable zone. All could have oceans and atmospheres, making them good candidates to search for extraterrestrial life.

The seven Earth-sized worlds orbit the ultra-cool dwarf star, TRAPPIST-1, which has been known to astronomers for some time. As the planets passed in front of TRAPPIST-1, the star’s light output dipped. Using a combination of ground and spaced based telescopes, the changes in the light output were used to detect the planets and gather information about their size, composition and orbit, explains the press release by the European Southern Observatory.

This simple GIF by New Scientist illustrates the principle of how the remarkable planets were found (while at the same time highlighting the fact there is a mind-blowing number of exoplanets scattered throughout space!).

The ultra-cool dwarf star and its planetary system has an even cooler website, which comes complete with great posters, videos, short stories, poems and graphic novels; as well as a detailed timeline of all the years of work which took place behind the scenes and culminated in the announcement made earlier this month.

Our top pick for a science poem honouring the discovery is In Search of New Life by Sam Illingworth, a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University.  You can also find an audio version of the poem here.

Far into space, amongst the darkest Sea

New planets sit like marbles in a row.

We turn our eyes to find out what might be

And search for patterns in their ether’s flow;

Then try to see what else might lie below.

And as we probe how life’s rich web was spun,

Do they look back towards our distant sun?

 

What you might have missed

The discovery of a previously unknown continent below New Zealand and New Caledonia dominated headlines towards the middle of the month.

Dr. Mortimer, of GNS Science and lead author of the study, argues that “being more than 1 million square kilometers in area, and bounded by well-defined geologic and geographic limits, Zealandia [the name given to the newly discovered continent] is, by our definition, large enough to be termed a continent.”

But without an official authority which designates the existence of continents, it will be for the broader scientific community to recognise Zealandia as one. And the jury is still out, as Alex Witze finds in this Nature News & Comment article:

“Claiming that Zealandia is a continent is a bit like stamp collecting,” says Peter Cawood, a geologist at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. “So what?”

While the (potentially) new Antipodean continent dominated headlines, you might have missed the discovery of another lost continent. Deep under the waters of the Indian Ocean, sandwiched between Madagascar and India, lie the scattered pieces of an ancient, drowned, microcontient called Mauritia. The authors of the study, published earlier this month in Nature Communications, dated zircons of up to 3 billion years old from Mauritanian volcanic rocks. Considering Mauritania is much younger, the researchers argue the zircons must have come from another, already existing continent.

Meanwhile, in the southern-most reaches of our planet, a huge iceberg is set to breakaway from the Larsen C Ice Shelf, on the northeastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. A large crack in the ice was spotted in natural-colour satellite imagery captured by NASA back in August 2016. Int January 2017 alone, the crack grew by more than 10 km in length and now stretches 175 km over the ice.

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists recently captured footage of the huge crack. The video highlights what the calving of such a large iceberg might mean for the Larsen C ice shelf, while this Nature News and Comment story highlights how far glaciology has come since similar calving events in the 90s and 00s. Scientists now have a much better understanding of what might happen in the weeks and months to come.

Five links we liked

The EGU story

After long-awaited snowfall in January, parts of the Alps are now covered with fresh powder and happy skiers. But the Swiss side of the iconic mountain range had the driest December since record-keeping began over 150 years ago, and 2016 was the third year in a row with scarce snow over the Christmas period. A study published this month in The Cryosphere, a journal of the European Geosciences Union, shows bare Alpine slopes could be a much more common sight in the future.

The new research, by scientists based at the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) and at the CRYOS Laboratory at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Switzerland, shows that the Alps could lose as much as 70% of snow cover by the end of the century. However, if humans manage to keep global warming below 2°C, the snow-cover reduction would be limited to 30% by 2100.

And don’t forget! To stay abreast of all the EGU’s events and activities, from highlighting papers published in our open access journals to providing news relating to EGU’s scientific divisions and meetings, including the General Assembly, subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter.

Imaggeo on Mondays: harnessing Earth’s inner heat

Imaggeo on Mondays: harnessing Earth’s inner heat

Iceland, the land of ice and fire, is well known for its volcanicity. Most famously, it is home to Eyjafjallajökull: the volcano which caused wide spread mayhem across European airspace when it erupted in 2010.

But not all the local volcanic activity is unwelcome. High temperature geothermal areas are a byproduct of the volcanic setting and the energy released can be used to power homes and infrastructure. Indeed, geothermal power facilities currently generate 25% of the country’s total electricity production.

“I took the photograph during a three hour walk in the Krafla area, a few kilometres away from Myvatn Lake in Northern Iceland,” explains Chiara Arrighi, a PhD student at the University of Florence in Italy, who took today’s featured image while on a two week holiday on the island.

There are 20 high-temperature areas containing steam fields with underground temperatures reaching 250°C within 1,000 m depth dotted across the country. Krafla, a caldera of about 10 km in diameter, and the wider Myvatn area is one of them. The volcano has a long history of eruptions, which drives the intrusion of magma at (geologically) shallow depths which in turn heats groundwater trapped deep underground, generating the steam field. Only a few hundred meters from the shooting location a power station of 60 MW capacity exploits high- and low-pressure steam from 18 boreholes.

Fumaroles and mud pots, like the one photographed by Chiara, are the surface expression of the geothermal activity. The discoloration of the rocks in the immediate vicinity of the bubbling mire is due to the acidic nature of the water in the pool. The steam is rich in hydrogen sulphide, which oxidises to sulphur and/or sulphuric acid as it mixes with oxygen when it reaches the surface. It deposits around the vents of fumaroles and as sulphuric acid in the stagnant waters, leading to alteration of the surrounding bedrock and soil.

If you pre-register for the 2017 General Assembly (Vienna, 22 – 28 April), you can take part in our annual photo competition! From 1 February up until 1 March, every participant pre-registered for the General Assembly can submit up three original photos and one moving image related to the Earth, planetary, and space sciences in competition for free registration to next year’s General Assembly!  These can include fantastic field photos, a stunning shot of your favourite thin section, what you’ve captured out on holiday or under the electron microscope – if it’s geoscientific, it fits the bill. Find out more about how to take part at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/photo-contest/information/.

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