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Coral bleaching in French Polynesia
August 13, 2001
In the past decade large numbers of coral reefs have died suddenly, leaving once thriving marine communities barren. This phenomenon, known as coral bleaching, are due mainly to extreme temperatures and increased solar irradiation. In 1998 a particularly severe bleaching event struck the corals of the Rangiroa Atoll in French Polynesia. A record-breaking El Niño raised the sea surface temperature almost 1°C higher than the normal highs for that period of the year, and held it there for three months. Such sustained high temperatures (the equivalent of a summer-long heat wave) had never before occured in the 50 years temperatures have been recorded in the region. 82 percent of the Porites coral on the reef offshore of Motu Tetaa (see arrow) died in 1998. If conditions in Rangiroa returned to normal, it would take about 100 years for the coral to regrow. Unfortunately, rising global temperatures and the possibilty of more frequent El Niños mayprevent the reefs from ever recovering.

image: NASA; courtesy Serge Andrefouet, University of South Florida, based on data from the USGS EROS Data Center

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