CHIANG MAI—In what experts are calling a slow disaster in the making, up to 90 percent of coral in the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea has been bleached, resulting in state shutdowns of affected areas and projected annual losses into the millions.
Many observers say the cause of the latest bleaching outbreak is extreme heat stress due to climate change, as ocean temperatures hover around 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit).
"If there is a long-term solution to the Thai problem — and the global problem — it lies in finding a realistic alternative to the combustion of fossil fuels, thus reducing the CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere," said Monty Halls, a spokesperson for the UK-based (SCCT), who warned that it is quickly becoming too late for the world's corals.
The bleaching in Thailand is said to be the worst in 20 years or more, while damage to the corals may well be the worst the country's ever seen, said Kasemsan Jinnawaso, director-general of the state's Marine and Coastal Resources Department. He told Thailand's Nation newspaper that the coral destruction could be more severe than when the 2004 tsunami struck Thailand's shores.
'Rainforests of the Sea'
The problem demands "urgent attention," Halls told SolveClimate News. He estimated the cost to Thailand in lost diving tourism dollars at $2.5 million per year.
Coral reefs, known as "the rainforests of the sea," are key to the planet's marine ecosystem and support about 4,000 species, including the marine food that more than two billion people depend on, according to figures from SCCT.
Bleaching occurs when oceans get unusually warm. Under heat stress, corals — which are living things — eject the algae that live inside their tissues, and provide food in exchange for shelter. The ejection process is known as bleaching because of the white skeleton left behind when the corals get sick.
Sustained whitening can trigger the partial or total death of coral colonies, which has happened to some parts of the Thai reefs.
In response to the bleaching, Thailand's Department of National Parks has temporarily shut down 18 popular diving sites, including tourism hot spot Phi Phi, and , which is one of the top 10 diving destinations in the world, according to the National Geographic Society.
The bleached reefs will stay closed for up to 14 months to let the coral recover.
In the meantime, the DNP is monitoring the whitening. "Every effort is also being made to protect corals that are resistant to bleaching and speed up rehabilitation of those already damaged," the DNP said via .
Agencies responsible for the reefs are providing news and information to officials, tourism operators and "Moken" sea-gypsy communities, to keep all concerned groups updated and foster cooperation in reducing environmental impact, the DNP said.
Thailand Not Alone