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Soaring temperatures spark mass coral death in Indonesia

Ocean temperatures in the waters off Indonesia have climbed into the 90s, devastating some of the world's most biodiverse coral reefs and threatening the livelihood of locals.

By OurAmazingPlanet Staff / August 17, 2010

An environmentalist from the Lamjabat Foundation examines bleached coral during in a reef survey in the area of Ujong Pancu, Aceh Besar on July 31, 2010. Rising temperatures in the waters off of Indonesia have prompted a mass coral die-off.

Chaideer Mahyddin/AFP

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One of the most destructive and swift coral bleaching events ever recorded is underway in the waters off Indonesia, where water temperatures have climbed into the low 90s, according to data released by a conservation group this week.

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The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) says a dramatic rise in sea temperature, potentially linked to global warming, is responsible for the devastation.

In May, the WCS sent marine biologists to investigate coral bleaching reported in Aceh — a province of Indonesia — located on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra. The initial survey carried out by the team revealed that more than 60 percent of corals in the area were bleached.

Subsequent monitoring of the Indonesian corals completed in early August revealed one of the most rapid and severe coral mortality events ever recorded. The scientists found that 80 percent of some species have died since the initial assessment, and more colonies are expected to die within the next few months.

"This is a tragedy not only for some of the world’s most biodiverse coral reefs, but also for people in the region, many of whom are extremely impoverished and depend on these reefs for their food and livelihoods," said WCS Marine Program Director Caleb McClennen. Coral reefs provide haven for fish and other creatures, and larger fish tend to congregate around reefs because they are good places to feed.

Bleaching — a whitening of corals that occurs when symbiotic algae living within coral tissues are expelled — is an indication of stress caused by environmental triggers such as fluctuations in ocean temperature. Depending on many factors, bleached coral may recover over time or die.

The event is the result of a rise in sea surface temperatures in the Andaman Sea — an area that includes the coasts of Myanmar, Thailand, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and northwestern Indonesia. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Hotspots website, temperatures in the region peaked in late May at more than 93 degrees Fahrenheit (34 degrees Celsius). That's 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) higher than long-term averages for the area.