The only way to save the Great Barrier Reef is to reverse climate change, according to a recent study published in Nature. This might seem like the obvious answer, as the warming oceans cause the corals to bleach, but it is an important fact to settle. Now the question remains: Is there time to save it?
It was previously suggested that while climate change did pose a major threat to the reef, this could be mitigated by cleaning up the water and preventing overfishing. The theory was that pollution and fishing stressed the coral to such a degree that when the waters start to warm, it's much more likely the reef will die when a bleaching event occurs. It seems, however, that this idea has finally been put to rest.
By studying the three major bleaching events that have occurred on the Great Barrier Reef over the last 20 years, the researchers found that both the temperature of the sea surface and the duration at which it stayed above average were the primary agents driving the bleaching and, in some cases, eventual death of the coral.
This raises significant questions about how the reef is now managed. Australia has spent a lot of time and money on improving the health of the reef by, for example, preventing agricultural runoff from the coast into the shallow seas off Queensland, as well as protecting large parts of it from fishing. As a result, it is considered one of the best managed reefs in the world. But this may all mean nothing if, as this latest study suggests, the real threat is actually coming from man-made climate change.
During last year's bleaching event, most of the southern reef, seen here, managed to escape damage. Tane Sinclair-Taylor