After a eulogy commemorating the death of the Great Barrier Reef was published last year, scientists and researchers were both grateful for the attention brought to the reef and outraged that the public was happy to accept that the reef was already dead. They insisted the reef was not dead yet and that this is the time to take action, not eulogize. Unfortunately, it seems their pleas have fallen on deaf ears as the Great Barrier Reef is facing more serious threats to its survival than ever before.
Mass Bleaching of the Reef
Bleaching is one of the biggest threats to the Great Barrier Reef. Bleaching, when the coral turns white, is caused when extreme heats forces the coral to release photosynthetic algae. After prolonged exposure to heat, the coral can die.
Three mass bleachings of the Great Barrier Reef occurred in 1998, 2002 and most recently in 2016. The bleaching in 2016 was the worst in recorded history; 22% of the coral died in a single event.
Terry Hughes, the convener of the National Coral Bleaching Task Force, explained that global warming is to blame for the increased heat and bleaching facing the reef. “It broke my heart to see so many corals dying on northern reefs on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016. With rising temperatures due to global warming, it's only a matter of time before we see more of these events,” Hughes said.
Hughes hopes that the bleaching the coral might face in 2017 won’t be anything like what we saw in 2016. The severity of the coral reef bleaching in 2016 was worse than scientists and researchers had ever seen before. Over the last 20 years, 91% of the Great Barrier Reef coral has suffered from bleaching.
Why Current Conservation Methods Just Aren’t Working
Australia’s long-term conservation plan for the Great Barrier Reef is largely concerned with bettering the quality of the water. However, the plan is relatively quiet on climate-change action which, according to Hughes, is central for keeping the reef alive. A research study by 46 scientists published in Nature magazine seriously questions the Australian government’s current plan for protecting the reef.
Researchers explained, “Local management of coral reef fisheries and water quality affords little, if any, resistance to recurrent severe bleaching events; even the most highly protected reefs and near-pristine areas are highly susceptible to severe heat stress." So despite efforts to improve the quality of the water around the Great Barrier Reef, the reef is still in trouble due to global warming.
The study also questions the government’s support for a proposed coal mine. The Carmichael Mine, which will be one of the largest coal mines in the world, is planning to export coal in ships through the Great Barrier Reef. This is dangerous to the reef because of the carbon emissions from the ships and the disruption of marine life.
The Future of the Great Barrier Reef
The study in Nature magazine warned that a fourth mass bleaching event was set to occur in the next 10-20 years. This bleaching would devastate the reef and leave the northern section with an extremely slim chance of recovering.
However, the study warns that if current conservation plans stay as they are, there will be little chance for the coral to resist the extreme heat. And with more heat causing mass bleaching, the chance of recovery for the reef is diminishing. Hughes stated, “Securing a future for coral reefs, including intensively managed ones such as the Great Barrier Reef, ultimately requires urgent and rapid action to reduce global warming. A sustained absence of another severe bleaching event is no longer realistic while global temperatures continue to rise.”