Environmental and ocean news outlets are full of information and articles about the bleak future of coral reefs, and the constant attack they are under in warming ocean temperatures around the world. Sadly, coral reefs are also facing natural disasters and the latest storm, named Cyclone Debbie, is suspected to have already damaged the infamous Great Barrier Reef in Australia just this week. The cyclone hit Queensland’s coast clocking in at a category four storm, which meant winds of up to 163 miles per hour.

While experts expect to find damage to the Great Barrier Reef, it will pale in comparison to the damage they are already witnessing at the hands of coral bleaching events. The authorities are still waiting the remaining part of the storm out and will assess the damage when it is safe to do so. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s director, Dr. David Wachenfeld, is fearful on the impact due to its slow, large, and intense nature. He goes on to state to BBC, “Those three things together tend to be characteristics of a cyclone that causes relatively high damage to the ecosystems of the Great Barrier Reef.”

Cyclone 101

So some of you may be wondering what a cyclone is and some of you may not have realized they were a real thing (me). Another term for a cyclone is a tropical storm and it is defined as a system of winds rotating inward to an area of low atmospheric pressure, with a counterclockwise (Northern Hemisphere) or clockwise (Southern hemisphere) circulation [google].  Interestingly enough, the only difference between a hurricane, a cyclone, and a typhoon is actually the location of where the storm occurs. In the Atlantic and Northeast Pacific they are called hurricanes. In the Northwest Pacific they are called typhoons. In the South Pacific and Indian they are called cyclones like Cyclone Debbie.

Thus, cyclones are normal in the area of Queensland, Australia in the South Pacific. However, the changing environment is causing storms like Cyclone Debbie to become more frequent and more severe.

The Great Barrier Reef

Cyclone Debbie and coral bleaching events are really testing the survival skills of coral reef systems. Dr Joshua Madin, a marine ecologist from Maquarie University based out of Sydney, predicts the damage done by the storm will be patchy but should still be concerning since it will still be considered severe damage. He says, “You start to see a lot of grow-back after 10 to 15 years, but some of these coral are hundreds of years old.”

While increasingly violent natural disasters like Cyclone Debbie are definitely a threat for coral reefs it is well agreed amongst professionals in the field that coral bleaching is still the heavy hitter in coral reef decline all over the world.  In fact, cyclones have the potential to have a positive effect on coral reefs due to cooling waters brought in from the storms. This could help counter act the rising temperatures causing the bleaching in the first place.

Ecologist Professor and director of Australian Research Council Centre of excellence for Coral Reef Studies, Terry Hughes, argues the aid may be negligible. He says, “It will cool the water temperature down by a degree or so but it’s not going to rescue bleached coral. Cyclone Debbie has come a month too late and in the wrong place to prevent mass bleaching. The cloud and wind has cooled down the sea temperature which might help the lightly bleached corals near the cyclone recover their color more quickly. But it’s far too late for further north. ”

Cyclone Debbie Aftermath

Unfortunately, even though the eye of the storm has passed it is not quite over. Many towns still don’t have power (an estimated 63,000 homes lost power) and several yachts and boats are still washing ashore that lost anchor in the storm. Currently, Cyclone Debbie has been changed from a category four storm to a tropical low system but Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology is still keeping an eye on the changing conditions which still consist of strong winds and heavy rain.


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