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Coral Bleaching

Updated on September 4, 2012

Something worth keeping a close eye on is the process known as coral “bleaching”. It has been estimated that a one to two degree Celsius increase has recently happened within the Great Barrier Reef waters. The slight temperature increase of the ocean is a leading factor in coral disease. With the increasing threat of global warming and bodies of water with rising temperatures, certain kinds of algae have also been dying off. Unfortunately, one of the kinds of threatened algae, called Zooxanthellae, is part of an important relationship with coral. Coral tissue, to most people’s surprise, is clear. The pigments within the algae are what give coral the vibrant color. Without these algae, the coral is essentially bleached. Prolonged bleaching can kill coral, which can upset a delicate balance of sea life.

Coral Stress

General coral stress can also cause bleaching. Storms, such as hurricanes and cyclones, can put a lot of stress on both the coral and algae. Even events such as an increase or reduction of a certain species of fish can change an environment, causing stress. This can then bleach coral, causing more of an imbalance of an ecosystem.

Another cause of coral stress is ocean acidification. The ocean is remarkably able to take up nearly one third of the Carbon Dioxide in the air. As humans continue to create more and more Carbon Dioxide, the ocean is rapidly absorbing the increase of the compound. When Carbon Dioxide enters the water it becomes Carbonic acid. Carbonic acid lowers the pH of the water, which means the water becomes more acidic than basic. Any pH below 7 is considered acidic, while any pH between 7 and 14 is considered basic. Algae, being as delicate as it is, can easily die with the change in pH.

Resulting Structure Deterioration

The change in pH not only puts added stress on algae, which would then unfortunately aid in coral bleaching, but the coral itself is also affected. Lower pH can alter the structural support of coral. Carbonic acid tends to lower the amount of carbonate forms within the water. Those carbonates are a necessity for the structure of a coral. There is even a slight possibility of the coral dissolving due to lack of carbonates. The lower pH of the ocean is detrimental to both coral and algae.


An alga is a very delicate organism. It can become easily reduced from the change of seemingly small environmental factors. A reduction of algae can be detrimental to coral. Any decrease in coral can displace certain fish that once lived within that area, as coral provides protection for many fish. Those fish can then move into an unsafe area for their species and possibly die off. This, of course, can possibly upset the whole balance of the underwater food chain. It is best to catch such problems before they escalade into something bigger.

It is crucial to not only become aware of such problems as coral bleaching, but also to become proactive with such problems. There has yet to be announced a viable solution to help coral bleaching, but studying and monitoring will continue. With any luck, a resolution will be thought of before it is too late.


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