The colorful coral reefs guarding the islands of Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora in French Polynesia have turned white in recent months in what some scientists fear is a new signal of the dangers of global warming. Up to 90% of the coral on the outer slopes of Moorea's barrier reefs have lost their color since March, said French scientist Bernard Salvat, director of the Tropical Biology Center.
Similar coral "bleaching events" have been noted by scientists in recent years in the Caribbean and off Australia. Scientists have said warmer ocean temperatures appeared to be responsible for bleaching that was observed off Florida, Jamaica and the Bahamas.
"The first proof of global warming may well come from the bleaching of the fragile and highly sensitive coral reef system," said Ernest H. Williams of the University of Puerto Rico's Caribbean Aquatic Health Project.
Ocean temperatures around the damaged coral in the South Pacific are 2 to 3 degrees higher than the normal readings of 85 degrees, said Salvat, who recently returned from studies in a laboratory in Moorea.