FILE - An undated handout photo received from ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, April 19, 2018, shows a mass bleaching event of coral on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. (Mia Hoogenboom)
FILE - An undated handout photo received from ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, April 19, 2018, shows a mass bleaching event of coral on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. (Mia Hoogenboom)

SYDNEY, AUSTRALA - The Great Barrier Reef off Australia is facing one of its most widespread coral bleaching events on record, as water temperatures soar. Scientists are blaming climate change and say that coral begins to die after prolonged heat stress. The warning comes from Australian university experts and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The world’s largest reef system has only just begun to recover after being hit by two consecutive years of coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017.

On Heron Island in Queensland, researchers say that the mass bleaching of coral has gotten worse in recent weeks. They are adamant that climate change is to blame for warmer ocean temperatures.

The southern part of the Great Barrier Reef should be an array of pinks and purples but is instead a ghostly white.

Coral responds to excessive heat by expelling the algae that give them their brilliant colors and most of their energy. When a coral bleaches, it is not dead, but it becomes far more stressed and fragile.

Aaron Chai, a marine biologist at the University of Queensland, says action to counter global warming is urgently needed.

"The mass bleaching has intensified over the last month. The reef that is normally colored in browns, pinks, blues and purples is stark white. Looking at what is happening on the reef currently, I am afraid that the future effects we simulate in our experiments could be occurring now as we speak. If we can stabilize the climate, we can allow the Great Barrier Reef time to recover and hopefully one day reach its former glory,” Chai said.

Australian scientists fear the bleaching could be more widespread than in 2016 and 2017, but hopefully it will not be as damaging.

The Great Barrier Reef is estimated to support more than 60,000 jobs and generates $6.4 billion for the Australian economy.

The reef runs 2,300 kilometers down Australia’s northeastern coast and spans an area about the size of Japan.