This time there's no El Niño to blame for the Great Barrier Reef "cooking and dying," as CNN puts it. Thanks to two years of back-to-back "bleaching" (algae loss) that researcher James Kerry tells the BBC is "unprecedented," two-thirds of the world's largest coral reef system is damaged, and scientists fear if normal conditions don't return, the coral won't be able to make a comeback. The bleaching, which was witnessed via aerial surveys, can be found along a 900-mile span of the reef, with this year's damage centered in the middle section, say scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies; last year's was mostly seen in the northern part. The cause is warmer waters spurred by climate change, but while fingers are often pointed at the El Niño weather pattern for causing such temperature spikes, El Niño had nothing to do with it this year.
The fact that both 2016 and 2017 were hit with major bleaching is especially worrisome, as before this there were just two bleaching incidents over nearly 20 years at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and they weren't so close together: one took place in 1998, another in 2002. "I was surprised to have to be getting in a plane again this year" to check out newly reported issues, says Kerry, a James Cook University professor. Bleaching isn't an automatic death sentence for coral: If temps fall back down to normal, the algae can recover. But, per ScienceAlert, Kerry says there's "zero prospect" of that happening with 2016's coral, and some reef experts are now "becoming despondent," the Guardian notes, with one telling the paper the reef is now in a "terminal stage." "We've given up," says Jon Brodie, who's spent much of his career managing the reef's water quality. (Last year, scientists found another big reef nearby.)