HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Scientists say coral reefs along the northwestern Hawaiian islands dodged a bullet. The area around the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument narrowly escaped severe mass coral bleaching this season, unlike many other reef ecosystems around the globe that are experiencing widespread problems.
Scientist Heidi Schuttenberg says, "Coral bleaching is one of the ways we know that climate change is real and climate change is happening because we can see it in such a visual way."
Coral gets all of its color and most of its nutrients from small algae that live within its tissues. Researchers say when the weather turns unusually hot, algae becomes toxic. The coral then kicks it out - leaving the tissues clear and looking completely white, like it was bleached.
Researchers say the warmer temperatures caused coral bleaching in just a few areas along the reef near Papahanaumokuakea, but stress on those areas could eventually make the organisms more susceptible to disease.
They monitored specifically for impacts of climate change because coral bleaching warnings had been issued for Kure and Midway atolls. They'll use their findings to help other fragile ecosystems around the world.
"Papahanaumokuakea offers us a contrast, a place of abundance that can give us hope and can help define for us what healthy and abundant looks like, "says Aulani Wilhelm, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's superintendent for Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
The team of researchers just returned from its annual reef assessment on Wednesday morning - after 26 days of investigating and logging information. This year's mission marks a decade of study at Papahanaumokuakea. They won't be returning again until next year but will continue to collect data via satellite imagery. Scientists say their documentation has influenced national policy on reef protection but that there's much more to be explored and discovered.
"All the dives that we've been doing, we haven't even scratched the surface in many places, " says Coral reef biologist Jim Maragos.
They'll continue to monitor sea temperatures - as the threat of climate change looms.