Queensland Museum researcher part of landmark coral bleaching study

15 March 2017

Queensland Museum researcher part of landmark coral bleaching study

A Queensland Museum Network scientist has been part of a landmark study into coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef released today in the prestigious journal Nature.

Dr Tom Bridge, jointly appointed Senior Curator of Corals based at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville and a Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University is one of 46 co-authors who contributed to the paper under lead author Professor Terry Hughes.

In the coming weeks, scientists will return to the Reef to conduct aerial and underwater surveys on the Great Barrier Reef and around Australia.

Dr Bridge said he hoped to travel to the Coral Sea in the coming months to conduct more surveys of coral bleaching.

 “It is timely that the team is remobilising to measure the extent of the damage from this summer compared to last, given the release of the paper which looks at recurrent mass bleaching becoming more frequent,” he said.

“It is very worrying to see bleaching for a second consecutive year, particularly because we are not currently in an El Nino weather pattern which tends to be associated with higher temperatures.

“With increasing water temperatures due to climate change, we are seeing mass bleaching events occurring more frequently, leaving corals insufficient time to recover between events.”

Professor Terry Hughes from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University said he was hoping bleaching in 2017 won’t be anything like the severity of 2016, but this wouldn’t be known until the surveys are complete.

“The severity of the 2016 bleaching was off the chart. It was the third major bleaching to affect the Great Barrier Reef following earlier heatwaves in 1998 and 2002. Now we’re gearing up to study a potential number four,” he said.

“We have now assessed whether past exposure to bleaching in 1998 and 2002 made reefs any more tolerant in 2016. Sadly we found no evidence that past bleaching makes the corals any tougher.”

Queensland Museum Network CEO and Director and Queensland Chief Scientist Professor Suzanne Miller said the study and paper focused on record temperatures during 2015-2016 that triggered an episode of coral bleaching across the tropics.

“Studies such as this provide vital information about the ongoing research Queensland scientists are conducting daily,” she said.

“It is only through these types of studies and research surveys that experts can investigate real solutions and I am proud that the Queensland Museum Network has been able to contribute to a paper of this significance.

“The Museum of Tropical Queensland houses one of the largest and most important coral collections anywhere in the world and Dr Bridge’s role not only as Senior Curator of Corals at the museum, but as research fellow with James Cook University has a huge contribution to ongoing research of corals on the Great Barrier Reef and around Australia.”

Dr Bridge will take part in the World Science Festival Brisbane from 22-26 March as a participant, delivering a talk on his research into corals in Let’s Talk Corals on 24 March and give budding young scientists a taste of his role in Cool Jobs on 23 March. For more information visit www.worldsciencefestival.com.au

The paper “Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals” by 46 co-authors appears today in the journal Nature.

Media Contacts:


Christine Robertson, Senior Media Officer, Queensland Museum Network 0417 741 710

Heidi Jones, Senior Media Officer, Queensland Museum Network, 07 3842 9388

Notes to editors

The research institutions associated with the paper are: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, Australian Institute of Marine Science, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, James Cook University, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), University of Queensland, University of Sydney, University of Western Australia, WA Department of Parks and Wildlife, Griffith University, Queensland Museum, University of Leeds, Curtin University, Torres Strait Regional Authority, NSW Department of Primary Industries.

Key points from the study:

  • 2015-2016 saw record temperatures that triggered a massive episode of coral bleaching across the tropics

  • Coral bleaching events should no longer be thought of as individual disturbances to reefs, but as recurring events that threaten the viability of coral reefs globally

  • The Great Barrier Reef has had three major bleaching episodes, in 1998, 2002 and 2016, with the latest being the most severe and with catastrophic levels of bleaching occurring in the northern third of the Reef (a region approximately 800 km or 500 miles in length)

  • The amount of bleaching on individual reefs in 2016 was tightly linked to local heat exposure

  • The cumulative, superimposed footprint of the three mass bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef has now encompassed virtually all of the Great Barrier Reef

  • Past exposure to bleaching in 1998 and 2002 did not lessen the severity of the bleaching in 2016

Coral bleaching occurs when abnormal environmental conditions, like heightened sea temperatures cause corals to expel tiny photosynthetic algae, called ‘zooxanthellae’. The loss of these colourful algae causes the corals to turn white, and ‘bleach’. Bleached corals can recover if the temperature drops and zooxanthellae are able to recolonise them, otherwise the coral may die.

Current reports of coral bleaching can be submitted to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s “Eye on the Reef” program: eyeonthereef@gbrmpa.gov.au


Link to coral bleaching map, a selection of photos and videos

(Images must carry credits as listed in Dropbox folder)