El Niño Left Behind All These Creepy Coral Ghost Towns

The great Niño of 2015 is finally on its way out. But before it goes, it has one final present to leave us: a giant cache of creepy coral bones littering the ocean floor, like a tiny seafaring graveyard. We’ll miss you too, Niño.

Biologists Julia Baum of the University of Victoria and Kim Cobb of Georgia Tech had been studying the reefs around Christmas Island late last year. At the time, the reefs were under threat but still teeming with life. This month, they went back to see what El Niño had wrought and found that almost everything had died. Only 5 percent remained alive.

This past El Niño was the strongest ever seen in recorded history, and that made matters particularly tough for ocean temperatures around Christmas Island. Those temperatures rose 3 degrees celsius over the course of the event—too high for the coral to survive. In a matter of months, there was almost nothing left.


But with no more El Niño heating up the waters, and La Niña coming to cool things down, can we expect the coral to come back? Alas, the damage is most likely permanent. In fact, with temperatures continuing to rise not just around Christmas Island but all over the oceans, what El Niño may have really just given us (besides nightmares) is a glimpse into our ocean’s future.

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How long will it take to see if any baby coral polyps drifted far enough south to find more acceptable temperatures to grow new reefs? The next generation might be able to go diving to see colorful fish swimming in the corals off Antarctica.