Great Barrier Reef Bleaching, March 2016

The worst bleaching event on record has affected corals across the Great Barrier Reef in the last few months. As of the end of March, a whopping 93% of the reef has experienced bleaching. This event has led scientists and high-profile figures such as Sir David Attenborough to call for urgent action to protect the reef from annihilation.

There is indisputable evidence that climate change is harming the reef. Yet, so far, no one has assessed how much climate change might be contributing to bleaching events such as the one we have just witnessed.

Unusually warm sea surface temperatures are strongly associated with bleaching. Because climate models can simulate these warm sea surface temperatures, we can investigate how climate change is altering extreme warm conditions across the region.

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Daily sea surface temperature anomalies in March 2016 show unusual warmth around much of Australia. Author provided using OSSTIA data from UK Met Office Hadley Centre.

We examined the Coral Sea region (shown above) to look at how climate change is altering sea surface temperatures in an area that is experiencing recurring coral bleaching. This area has recorded a big increase in temperatures over the past century, with March 2016 being the warmest on record.

Examining the human influence

To find out how climate change is changing the likelihood of coral bleaching, we can look at how warming has affected the likelihood of extremely hot March sea temperature records. To do so, we use climate model simulations with and without human influences included.

If we see more very hot March months in simulations with a human influence, then we can say that climate change is having an effect, and we can attribute that change to the human impact on the climate.

This method is similar to analyses we have done for land regions, such as our investigations of recent Australian weather extremes.

We found that climate change has dramatically increased the likelihood of very hot March months like that of 2016 in the Coral Sea. We estimate that there is at least a 175 times increase in likelihood of hot March months because of the human influence on the… More

Methods document

Photo: Dorothea Bender-Champ/ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies