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Friday, March 17, 2017

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There may be questions about global warming. The climate models may be incomplete, even inaccurate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may have been fudging data for years. But there is no denying that modern, human industrial pollution is having a large and catastrophic impact on our environment.

The Great Barrier Reef is almost dead.

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Huge sections of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, stretching across hundreds of miles of its most pristine northern sector, were recently found to be dead, killed last year by overheated seawater. More southerly sections around the middle of the reef that barely escaped then are bleaching now, a potential precursor to another die-off that could rob some of the reef's most visited areas of color and life.

"We didn't expect to see this level of destruction to the Great Barrier Reef for another 30 years," said Terry P. Hughes, director of a government-funded center for coral reef studies at James Cook University in Australia and the lead author of a paper on the reef that is being published as the cover article of the journal Nature. "In the north, I saw hundreds of reefs - literally two-thirds of the reefs were dying and are now dead."

The damage to the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world's largest living structures, is part of a global calamity that has been unfolding intermittently for nearly two decades and seems to be intensifying. In the paper, dozens of scientists described the recent disaster as the third worldwide mass bleaching of coral reefs since 1998, but by far the most widespread and damaging.

The state of coral reefs is a telling sign of the health of the seas. Their distress and death are yet another marker of the ravages of global climate change.

If most of the world’s coral reefs die, as scientists fear is increasingly likely, some of the richest and most colorful life in the ocean could be lost, along with huge sums from reef tourism. In poorer countries, lives are at stake: Hundreds of millions of people get their protein primarily from reef fish, and the loss of that food supply could become a humanitarian crisis.

With this latest global bleaching in its third year, reef scientists say they have no doubt as to the responsible party.

They warned decades ago that the coral reefs would be at risk if human society kept burning fossil fuels at a runaway pace, releasing greenhouse gases that warm the ocean. Emissions continued to rise, and now the background ocean temperature is high enough that any temporary spike poses a critical risk to reefs.

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