“Climate change and ocean acidification have killed off one of the most spectacular features on the planet,” reported magazine Outside in a viral article entitled “Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 Million BC-…)”. But is the world’s biggest coral reef actually dead, and if not, can it be saved?
The largest living structure
Corals and algae coexist in a symbiotic relationship that allows them to thrive, creating wonderfully colorful structures beloved by divers and snorkelers. They form diverse ecosystems that are home to up-to 9 million species, a quarter of all marine life forms.
A barrier reef protects the shallow shore waters from the open sea, providing protection for many coastal organisms. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the biggest of this type, stretching for over 1,400 miles off the coast of Queensland in the Coral Sea. After 25 million years, it was pronounced dead in 2016. Cause of death: global warming.
Coral reef bleaching
When climate change causes sea water temperature to rise, algae start producing more oxygen than corals can take. To protect themselves from poisoning, coral ejects the colorful algae and becomes bone white. This phenomenon is known as bleaching and can create vast, graveyard-like landscapes. Yet despite its apparent desolation, a bleached coral reef is not dead – or at least it doesn’t die immediately. If regular sea temperature is restored, the colorful algae can come back and nourish the reef, returning it to good health.
In 2014 and 2015, a global bleaching event affected reefs off the coasts of Florida and Hawaii in the US, as well as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. A year later, another heatwave resulted in a “catastrophic” bleaching which hit the Great Barrier Reef so badly that as much as 30% of the structure perished. The temperature remained high for so long that bare corals, deprived of nutrients, died irretrievably.
As if that wasn’t enough, bleaching isn’t the only threat to reefs which are also heavily affected by pollution, overfishing and seashore industrialization. Like any other ecosystem, they suffer because of increasing human impact.
It too late for the Great Barrier Reef?
Contrary to popular belief, the Great Barrier Reef is not yet entirely damaged. It undoubtedly is in the worst condition ever and the prognosis is not good but “gravely ill isn’t the same as dead.” There is still hope.
The one thing that can prevent all of the world’s coral reefs from dying is “drastic action to reverse global warming” and it lies in the hands of both policymakers and citizens. Becoming more aware of climate change and how we can battle it at a grassroots level is the best thing we can do to protect the Great Barrier Reef and its inhabitants from extinction.