Extreme March storms wreaked vast damage on Eilat’s coral reefs, study finds
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Extreme March storms wreaked vast damage on Eilat’s coral reefs, study finds

Initial findings of monitoring show up to 75% of coral cover harmed by lashing waves, moving sand carpets and objects blown from land into Gulf of Eilat

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Corals broken by the extreme storms that battered Eilat in March. (Dr Assaf Zvuloni, Eilat district marine ecologist, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)
Corals broken by the extreme storms that battered Eilat in March. (Dr Assaf Zvuloni, Eilat district marine ecologist, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Unusually violent storms in the Gulf of Eilat in March caused massive damage to Eilat’s coral reefs, with losses reaching up to 75 percent in some places, exposing vulnerabilities of the reef despite it being unusually resistant to climate change.

Rehabilitation of the reef is likely to take many years, according to initial survey results released Sunday by the Environmental Protection Ministry.

To further complicate recovery, the survey also found algae growing on the reefs as the result of fertilizer and other organic materials entering the sea. Algae compete with juvenile corals for space on the reefs.

Divers from the Inter-University Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat found a massive 75% reduction in coral cover at a depth of 10 meters (33 feet) in the Coral Beach Reserve compared with the summer of 2019, and a 25% depletion at a depth of five meters (16 feet), compared with the spring of 2019.

At the Institute’s reefs, south of Coral Beach, the damage was the worst since the Environmental Protection Ministry started funding the annual surveys in 2003. Precise data was not provided. In 2003, waste from fish farming cages was still causing massive pollution and damage to the Red Sea corals. The cages were banned in 2008 after public pressure.

Most of the storm damage was wreaked on large coral colonies by the force of the waves and carpets of sand sweeping into the sea. Compounding the elements were objects such as signs and pieces of jetty blown into the water by the force of the winds.

סערה במפרץ אילת .צילם מנהל השמורה חן טופיקיאן .

פורסם על ידי ‏שמורת טבע האלמוגים – רשות הטבע והגנים‏ ב- יום חמישי, 12 במרץ 2020

The reefs off the Gulf of Aqaba and Eilat — the northernmost in the world — are thought to be unusually resistant to global warming.

For evolutionary reasons, corals there demonstrate resilience to water temperatures that are several degrees higher than those in places where reefs are dying.

However, as is now clear, the same reefs will not be able to withstand the kind of extreme storm events that are expected to increase as the climate warms.

Corals broken by the extreme storms that battered Eilat in March. (Dr Assaf Zvuloni, Eilat district marine ecologist, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

“In the past, coral mortality events were recorded in the Gulf of Eilat, mainly due to extreme low tide events that exposed shallow corals to the open air,” a ministry statement said. “But an extreme mortality event like the present one, with harm to corals five to ten meters deep, has not been documented in Eilat to date. From the recent storm, it can be learned that, unlike the Eilat corals’ resilience to seawater warming, they are not resistant to extreme weather events.”

The new Environmental Protection Minister, Gila Gamliel, said that the damage was significant from a global point of view as well. Noting that the ministry is part of the global effort to fight the climate crisis, “which was one of the causes of the extreme storm that hit Eilat,” she said it would endeavor to ensure that there is better preparation for extreme events of this kind in the future.

Last year, the ministry and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority teamed up to remove waste such as fishing nets and old tires from the Gulf of Eilat. Without this, the damage could have been even worse.

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