The Great Barrier Reef is Dead…Or Is It?

by January 12, 2017
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In October of 2016, Rowan Jacobsen of Outside magazine published an obituary for the Great Barrier Reef, much to the shock and horror of many: Scientists, concerned that people would take the article at face value, and laypeople who took the article at face value. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living thing on Earth, the world’s largest coral reef system extending for 2,300 kilometers off the coast of Queensland in northeastern Australia. Comprised of 900 islands and 2,900 individual reefs, the Great Barrier Reef is visible from space, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site. The ecosystem is home to thousands of marine species and draws millions of tourists annually.

However, warming oceans, which are a result of global warming, have caused about a quarter of the reef’s coral to become bleached, mostly in the north of the Great Barrier Reef. Bleaching occurs when coral algae are expelled due to the high temperatures which then exposes the corals white skeleton. The coral algae, after all, are what cause the beautiful multi-colored appearance of the corals they symbiotically live with. High temperatures cause them to produce too much oxygen for the corals which then must release their algae to survive.

The obituary for the Great Barrier Reef was satire, with the birth and death of the Great Barrier Reef listed as ’25 million BC – 2016.’ However, many magazines and newspapers such as The New York Post were quick to mourn the loss of one of nature’s wonders. The prose of Jacobsen’s obituary was partly to blame, with phrases like “With no force on earth capable of preventing the oceans from continuing to warm and acidify for centuries to come…” liberally scattered throughout the obituary. Jacobsen probably did not mean for readers to take the article as face value, as many did, and conclude that the Great Barrier Reef was dead and buried. There was a notably fatalistic tinge to his writing, as if it was inevitable that the Great Barrier Reef was irreversibly on its way to death – that the obituary would be apt sooner rather than later. However, all is not as it seems.

Many scientists acknowledge that the most coral ecosystems worldwide are under severe stress and require immediate action. At the same time, these same scientists are quick to point out that that does not mean the Great Barrier Reef is dead. Kim Cobb, a coral reef expert Georgia Tech, even goes on to say, “There will be reefs in 2050, including portions of the Great Barrier Reef.” That statement directly contradicts the obituary which spoke in doomsday terms of how atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations of 450 parts per million would kill the Great Barrier Reef completely by 2025. However, as CNN points out, “There is a difference between dead and dying.”

What can be done? The key message is that it is not too late to save the Great Barrier Reef, and that this is no time to give up, but rather a time for environmental activists and policy-makers to develop effective, long-lasting, and sustainable solutions for preserving and rebuilding the Great Barrier Reef. Coral reef ecosystems are remarkably resilient. Research on Christmas Island corals in the Pacific Ocean, where 85% of corals had died, showed that there were still spots of coral reefs that were as pristine as ever. Part of that can have implications for future genetic re-engineering to rebuild and repopulate parts of the Great Barrier Reef that have been destroyed so that the thousands of marine species that depend on the Great Barrier Reef remain as unaffected as possible.

Although most of the Great Barrier Reef has undergone some degree of bleaching, there are still large swathes that are living, unlike what Jacobsen’s obituary would have a person believe. While many divers report the smell of rotted and decaying coral, by and large, much of the Great Barrier Reef is just as astonishingly beautiful and healthy as ever. That is not to say that the Great Barrier Reef is not under threat by acidifying oceans and climate change caused by human activity, because it is, and is in danger of extinction and under great stress. However, there are still steps for us to take to protect and preserve what is still remaining before we begin to repopulate and rebuild the ecosystem for the thousands of marine animals that call it home.

Research from January 2017 from the University of Sydney notes that “the [Great Barrier Reef] can be resilient but questions remain about cumulative impact,” which is of utmost importance as climate change moves forward. How much can the Great Barrier Reef take before it is too late to turn back? 93% of the Great Barrier Reef has suffered some form of bleaching, but it is not past the point of recovery. We still have work to do to ensure that the Great Barrier Reef lasts a great many more generations and epochs to come.

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