The Great Barrier Reef has been on the brink of destruction for some time now. After a eulogy was written prematurely for the reef, scientists were outraged. They insisted that the reef was not dead yet and that we needed to recommit ourselves to its conservation. But now, after the most recent bleaching event, scientists are changing their tune. The Great Barrier Reef has reached a terminal stage and there is no going back.
Details of the 2016 & 2017 Mass Bleachings
Bleaching occurs when sea water gets too hot, an effect attributed to global warming, and the coral reef starves. The reef turns white and dies, known as bleaching. The Great Barrier Reef has suffered four instances of mass bleaching. The most recent incidents, in 2016 and 2017, have researchers scared for the fate of the reef and its ability to bounce back.
The 2016 and 2017 mass bleachings combined affected over two thirds of the reef - an area stretching over 1500 km. The 2016 bleaching focused on the northern third of the reef while this year’s event has moved farther south and has been more intense in the middle third. While 2016’s bleaching was the most intense thanks to the effects of El Nino, the 2017 bleaching was not far behind and did not have the added damage of El Nino.
How Can the Great Barrier Reef Recover?
Professor Terry Hughes, who has led surveys that studied bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, explains that even the fastest growing coral needs about ten years to fully recover from a bleaching incident. He goes on to relay the damages, “The significance of bleaching this year is that it’s back to back, so there’s been zero time for recovery. It’s too early yet to tell what the full death toll will be from this year’s bleaching, but clearly it will extend 500km south of last year’s bleaching.”
In addition to bleaching, the Great Barrier Reef also faces threats from a destructive species of starfish and poor water quality. Cyclone Debbie also negatively impacted the reef. While cyclones can help to cool sea water and prevent bleaching, Cyclone Debbie came too late and affected the wrong part of the reef causing even more damage.
David Suggett, a marine biologist and The University of Technology Sydney’s lead reef researcher, explains that in order for bleached coral reef to recover, it has to be connected to untouched and unbleached reef. Suggett believes this connection is at risk, putting reef recovery in a perilous position. “It’s that connection ultimately that will drive the rate and extent of recovery. So if bleaching events are moving around the [Great Barrier Reef] system on an annual basis, it does really undermine any potential resilience through connectivity between neighbouring reefs.”
Is It Too Late For the Reef?
The question on everyone’s mind is: Is it too late for the reef? Scientists and researchers seem to be split. They all recognize the damage that has been done but some are throwing in the towel while others are choosing to remain optimistic.
Jon Brodie, a water quality expert who has spent much of his life managing and improving water quality of the reef, thinks the war has been lost. He says, “We’ve given up. It’s been my life managing water quality, we’ve failed. Even though we’ve spent a lot of money, we’ve had no success. Last year was bad enough, this year is a disaster year. The federal government is doing nothing really, and the current programs, the water quality management is having very limited success. It’s unsuccessful.”
Jon Day, the former director of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for 16 years until retiring in 2014, feels differently. He looks at the problem from an area planning and management lens. He believes the Australian government was too lax in their conservation efforts and is way behind on meeting their 2018 water quality goals. Still, Day isn’t ready to give up. He says, “You’ve got to be optimistic, I think we have to be. But every moment we waste, and every dollar we waste, isn’t helping the issue. We’ve been denying it for so long, and now we’re starting to accept it. But we’re spending insufficient amounts addressing the problem.”