Coral bleaching is about to cause one of the biggest breakups of all time.



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Once upon a time, there was coral.

Coral lives in the ocean and forms massive, magnificent reefs when it binds together. The reefs, with their hard bony structure and various nooks and crannies, provide protection and shelter for all manner of marine wildlife.

Photo by Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images.

Then algae came bouncing along, and something beautiful happened.

Algae, one of the oldest lifeforms on the planet, had been drifting through the ocean waters for millions of years, attaching itself to anything it could in order to reproduce.

Algae! Photo via Simon Andrews/Wikimedia Commons.

Algae found a home with coral, and the two quickly fell in love.

Coral provides carbon nutrients and protection for algae, and algae provides food for coral through its photosynthesis. It’s a perfect symbiotic partnership, and algae and coral found out they were a match made in heaven. On Earth. In the ocean.

Everyone was happy. Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images.

For hundreds of millions of years, coral and algae’s relationship has been rock solid. But times are unfortunately changing.

You know how sudden, massive changes in your life can put a stress on your relationship? Like the loss of a job or a death in the family? Well, the same thing can happen to coral and algae.

When the couple’s environment experiences sudden changes, coral reefs can get stressed out, which affects its ability to be the good, supportive partner algae fell in love with. The algae is then forced to abandon the coral and seek out a better life elsewhere in the sea.

This is a process known as coral bleaching.

The coral looks “bleached” because algae is what gives it its bright green color. Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images.

One of the largest coral reefs in the world, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, has been abandoned by almost all of its algae.

It’s one of the most significant coral bleaching events ever recorded and possibly the biggest oceanic celebrity breakup since South America left Africa in the great Pangea split.

Currently, 93% of the Great Barrier Reef has been left by its algae — a scarily high number, one which has never been seen before.

The Great Barrier Reef is visited by about 1.6 million people every year. Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images.

Who’s to blame for this deep-sea Shakespearian romantic tragedy?

One of the most significant coral stressors is changing ocean surface temperatures. The “photosynthetic efficiency” of coral and algae’s millennias-old lovefest drops if temperatures become too warm or too cold.

Lately, human-made climate change has pushed ocean surface temperatures way above normal. Australian ocean temperatures are also greatly affected by El Niño, which has recently become more extreme as a result of the greenhouse warming of the planet.

Greenpeace activists painting a message on the side of a coal ship. Photo by Greenpeace via Getty Images.

That temperature shift has forced algae to pack its bags and leave the Great Barrier Reef cold, lonely, and in serious danger.

To be fair, parts of the Great Barrier Reef will regain their algae population when (or if) ocean temperatures drop back down. But scientists have already seen large portions of the reef permanently die due to the sudden loss of algae.

Some scientists estimate that the Great Barrier Reef will face total extinction in decades. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images.

Global climate change will also continue to produce temperature extremes unless we do something about it, meaning that coral stressors will become worse and worse every year, and these bleaching events will become even more significant.

There are 8 billion reasons to fight climate change. Now there’s one more.

One of Earth’s oldest and best love stories is coming to an end off the coast of Australia, but fighting back against climate change can save it.

If you don’t want to do it for humanity, do it for Earth’s greatest couple. Do it for a partnership that deserves to continue.

Do it for love.

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