Is The Great Barrier Reef Really Dead?

The reef is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. Kyle Taylor/Flickr CC BY 2.0

It’s been a bit of a tumultuous year for the Great Barrier Reef, to say the least. As if the increase of industrial activity along the coastline it tracks wasn’t bad enough, this year has seen the largest coral bleaching event ever recorded as the sea surface temperatures continue to rise and the oceans continue to acidify.

Despite these very real and serious existential threats, worryingly little is being said or done by those who have the power to protect it.

RIP Great Barrier Reef

In response to this, environmental writer Rowan Jacobsen has written an article as if the rainbow palette of corals and shimmering, dancing life it so vitally supports, is no more.

“The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness,” wrote Jacobsen. “It was 25 million years old.”

The poignant piece, penned as an obituary for the world’s largest living structure, details its life and history, and how we humans sat and watched as it sunk beneath the waves for one last time.     

“For most of its life, the reef was the world’s largest living structure, and the only one visible from space,” Jacobsen continued. “It was 1,400 miles long, with 2,900 individual reefs and 1,050 islands. In total area, it was larger than the United Kingdom, and it contained more biodiversity than all of Europe combined.”

While the reef may not be dead yet, the consistent hammering it has received, and is continuing to receive, certainly makes it seem like one of the world’s most beautiful ecosystems is not long for this world.

If this all sounds a little dramatic and a smidgen over the top, well, there’s bad news for you. The threats faced by the reef are all too real, and all too immediate. The point is, marine biologists have been warning us for years what will happen as the planet continues to warm and nothing is done about it.

They have been tracking the decline and bleaching of reefs around the globe, and telling the world that it will eventually hit the Great Barrier Reef. But their forewarnings have too often been met with indifference, until it is seemingly too late.

The Great Barrier Reef is the only living structure visible from space. Jacques Descloitres/MODIS Rapid Response Team/NASA/GSFC

A Very Bad Year

This year was truly catastrophic for the Great Barrier Reef. The near record-breaking El Niño that rocked the east of the Pacific helped to push global temperatures almost 1.5°C warmer than average, with lethal effect on some parts of the reef. While bleaching events had already been striking other reefs, it finally reached Australian waters, with a truly shocking 93 percent of reefs experiencing some bleaching.

The northern parts, where the waters tend to be slightly warmer anyway, were worst hit. While bleaching – in which the coral ejects the algae that supply them with food, but also their myriad of colors, due to the rising temperature – is not necessarily fatal if the water temperature drops within a few weeks, it is thought that this did not occur quick enough for many parts. In fact, it is thought that a horrific 50 percent of coral in the northern Great Barrier Reef was killed off this year alone.

Yet it is not just the temperature that the reef needs to be concerned about. As we pump more CO2 into the atmosphere, it not only warms the planet, but is also absorbed by the oceans, changing its pH. When carbon dioxide reacts with water it produces carbonic acid, which in turn increases the acidity of the oceans. With atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations exceeding 400 parts per million, and the oceans thought to absorb about a third of all CO2 put into the air by humans, things are not looking great.

This is even more bad news for the corals, as they construct their external skeletons out of calcium carbonate. This, it turns out, is highly susceptible to increases in acidity, causing the mineral to thin and making it more difficult to form in the first place. This will not only impact the corals, however, as snails, mussels, oysters and a whole plethora of other mollusks that are both economically and ecologically important will be affected.

Coral bleaching is reversible, but can also be fatal. Matt Kieffer/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Are We Too Late?

While there are plenty of conservationists working their hearts out to try and save, or at least mitigate the loss of the reef, from breeding bleaching-resistant corals to legally challenging developments along its coast, unfortunately they don’t appear to have the government backing they so desperately require. Even as the disaster striking the reef was beginning to unfold at the end of 2015, the Australian government gave the go-ahead to a massive coal port expansion at Abbot Point, smack bang in the middle of the marine reserve. The irony is almost too much.

Not only that, but the government seems to be turning a blind eye to the impact, or at the very least burying its head in the sand. This is despite the fact that it’s the largest tourist attraction in the country, supporting an industry worth an estimated $6 billion as well as 69,000 jobs. It was revealed that even this summer, the government censored a major UN report looking into which World Heritage Sites were most at danger from climate change, pressuring them to remove a whole chapter focuses on the reef because the government was worried it would negatively impact tourism. Well guess what, tourism will be even worse hit when there is no reef for people to visit.

So how long then does it have left? If things carry on as they are, then probably not long. But this is not just the responsibility of Australia. All nations are guilty of pumping more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We all need to control our emissions and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. The Australian government, however, needs to wake up to the very real and very serious threat facing the reef, otherwise it will be lost not just for them, but for us all.

At the end of the day, even though large portions of the reef are most certainly irreversibly damaged, the Great Barrier Reef is more resilient than many may give it credit for. Given the right care and attention, those sections of the coral, and the plethora of life that call them home, can be saved and coaxed back from the edge. It is true that it is not over yet, but it is getting perilously close to the final hour. More needs to be done, but crucially, more can be done to help it but we can not waste a moment more.  

The reef is one of the natural wonders of the world, and it would be a tragedy to lose it. Greens MPs/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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