Wrong, Reuters and CNN, Coral Doing Well Amidst Modest Warming, Bleaching ≠ Coral Death

Reuters and CNN each posted stories in the past week warning that a major coral bleaching event may soon appear affecting coral communities in the Southern Hemisphere, in particular the Great Barrier Reef (GBR)—and climate change is the cause, by the way. Bleaching may occur, but history shows such events do not equal coral death, and the evidence suggests that the cause for any bleaching that occurs this year is a short-term spike in ocean temperatures due to natural El Niño patterns, not climate change.

In its story, “Exclusive: World on brink of fourth mass coral reef bleaching event, NOAA says,” Reuters writes, “[t]he world is on the verge of a fourth mass coral bleaching event which could see wide swathes of tropical reefs die, including parts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said.

“Marine biologists are on high alert following months of record-breaking ocean heat fueled by climate change and the El Niño climate pattern,” Reuters’ continued.

The story was hardly “Exclusive,” since CNN had basically published the same claim in its post, “Australia’s Great Barrier Reef suffers ‘extensive’ coral bleaching, as scientists fear seventh mass bleaching event,” on February 27, nearly a week before Reuters published its story. It’s hard to be original when you are all working from the same script.

Based on the two stories, one must first ask, which is it, the seventh mass bleaching event or the fourth? It seems the mainstream media can’t even get their numbers straight, although they certainly agree on three things: a mass bleaching is either in process or immanent; it means death for the corals affected, and it is caused by human induced climate change.

Reuters and CNN may be right that a large amount of coral in the southern hemisphere may bleach in the coming year, but they are wrong about the cause and the consequences for coral.

Reuters and CNN both acknowledge that El Niño is a significant factor in present ocean warming.

“Ocean temperatures are also becoming even hotter under the current El Niño — a natural climate pattern that brings warmer-than-average sea-surface temperatures — which is one of the strongest on record,” writes CNN.

Data does not support the claim that ocean temperatures in the Southern Hemisphere have warmed dramatically over the past 30 years. Rather, each and every mass bleaching event that Reuters and CNN cite as evidence of climate change coincided with and was a response to either a strong or a weak El Niño. When an El Niño strikes, Southern Hemisphere corals are impacted, no El Niño, minimal or no bleaching.

As discussed in Climate at a Glance: Coral Reefs, coral thrive in warm water, not cold water, As a result, the recent modest warming has allowed coral to expand their range poleward, while still thriving near the equator and the tropics.

The evidence also clearly shows that coral bleaching is not tantamount to coral death, which has been proven repeatedly at the GBR, which Reuters and CNN express such concern for. Indeed, subsequent to previous strong El Niño induced recent bleaching events at the GBR, the coral reef repeatedly set new records for coral extent. That’s right, the coral not only recovered, but the coral colonies also seemingly adapted and expanded. This fact has been discussed in a number of previous Climate Realism posts, here, here, and here, for example.

Whether an El Niño induced spike in Southern Ocean temperatures causes coral reefs to bleach en masse this year or not, the evidence suggests that most if not all of the coral will recover, evolving and become hardier in the face of future temperature increases. Coral have existed continuously for the past 60 million years, surviving temperatures and carbon dioxide levels significantly higher than what is occurring today, and the evidence suggests until the next ice age, they will continue to thrive and expand their range. Reuters and CNN should honestly acknowledge this rather than trying to generate fear amongst their readers by shoehorning a false coral demise story into the narrative that “climate change causes everything.”

H. Sterling Burnett
H. Sterling Burnett
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., is the Director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News. In addition to directing The Heartland Institute's Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy, Burett puts Environment & Climate News together, is the editor of Heartland's Climate Change Weekly email, and the host of the Environment & Climate News Podcast.

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