Researchers predict a major marine heat wave in the Pacific Ocean could prove disastrous to the fragile coral reefs along Hawaii’s Papa Bay and similar coastlines. Warmer water conditions often trigger coral bleaching, a condition that leaves coral reefs susceptible to mortality.

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Coral reefs play a very significant environmental and ecological role. As a habitat, for instance, they support many species in the marine environment. Coral reefs likewise serve as a protective barrier, buffering shorelines against deleterious wave action, especially during typhoon season, to minimize coastal damage and to prevent erosion. Healthy reefs contribute to local economies, particularly through tourism as well as commercial and recreational fishing.

Related: ‘The Blob’ returns — marine heatwave settles over Pacific

Unfortunately, when water is too warm, coral become stressed. They consequently expel the algae, or zooxanthellae, that live in their tissues. In doing so, coral turn white, a condition known as bleaching. Prolonged loss of the algae eventually leads to the coral’s demise. When coral reefs are compromised, the loss cascades, often causing far-reaching ecosystem repercussions.

Back in 2015, a prominent marine heat wave eliminated half of the Papa Bay coastline’s coral reefs that surround Hawaii’s Big Island. This year, marine scientists associated with NOAA similarly predict that another round of very warm water will occur in the region once again.

“In 2015, we hit temperatures that we’ve never recorded ever in Hawaii,” NOAA oceanographer Jamison Gove said. “What is really important — or alarming, probably more appropriately — about this event is that we’ve been tracking above where we were this time in 2015.”

map of marine heat wave in the Pacific Ocean

Earlier this September, NOAA researchers warned of the Blob’s return. The Blob — the moniker coined by Washington state climatologist Nick Bond during the 2015 heat wave — describes the vast expanse of unusually warm water that occurred in the Pacific Ocean from 2014 to 2016. It adversely impacted coral reefs, causing global bleaching and diminished coastal fisheries’ yields throughout the Pacific.

To date, this year’s Blob is reportedly the second-largest marine heat wave ever recorded in the past 40 years, just behind the 2014 – 2016 Blob. As a result, forecasts anticipate an even warmer October, which could critically undermine the coral that are still recovering from the first Blob.

“Temperatures have been warm for quite a long time,” Gove continued.  “It’s not just how hot it is — it’s how long those ocean temperatures stay warm.”

While scientists are not yet able to pinpoint the exact causes for ocean temperatures warming, it is believed human-influenced climate change is a salient factor.

Restoration efforts are in the works. Research suggests coral can be conditioned to withstand future onslaught of warmer water. Both scientists and coral hobbyists are on a mission to breed “super corals” resilient enough to avoid bleaching. It is hoped the introduction of these “super corals” into the environment will fortify reefs to better evolve amidst global warming conditions.

Via Associated Press

Images via Terri Stewart and NOAA