Dying corals -- milestones along a meandering path to famine
For Tim McClanahan, a zoologist studying fisheries, what happened in Kenya during the spring of 1998 was a wake-up call.
Between March and July of that year, a rare climatological double whammy sent ocean temperatures spiking 1 to 2 degrees Celsius above the normal range for spring and summer. An unusually intense El Niņo weather pattern coincided with the warm phase of another cyclical area weather event.
This turned out to be a slow-motion disaster. Half the corals in the region bleached and died that year. Some had a 90 percent loss. "The bleaching and mortality event took about six months to fully unfold, but many of the reefs have not recovered even today -- 14 years after the event," said McClanahan, an employee of the Wildlife Conservation Society. He has spent more than 20 years working along Kenya's southeastern coast.
It took four years before scientists could definitively show dramatic declines in three commonly caught species of food fish. The lag and the devastating results got McClanahan thinking about climate change's potential to damage the economies of communities that traditionally rely on fish to eat and fish to sell.