birds eye image of great barrier reef

What is Happening to the Great Barrier Reef?

Throughout 2016 you may have noticed the world’s largest coral reef has made some headlines – but it’s not great news. The Great Barrier Reef has lost half of its coral in the past 27 years, and the decline could continue unless intervention takes place. The reef, which is the only living thing visible from space, has suffered the worst bleaching on record, with other factors contributing to further damage. Why is this happening, and is there anything we can do to stop the Great Barrier Reef dying?

History of the Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is a UNESCO World Heritage site, located off the coast of the Australian state of Queensland. It stretches for over 1,400 miles and is home to thousands of species of coral, fish and other underwater creatures. The lifespan of the reef is thought to be about 25 million years old – but last year a leading environmental writer Rowan Jacobsen pronounced it dead.

image of diver at great barrier reef

Coral Bleaching

Research has revealed that 2016 brought the worst bleaching ever on record to the reef. Bleaching events have occurred in this location in the past, and it is possible for the coral to recover – however this time the damage is more severe, and in some places 90% of the coral has been pronounced dead.

image of bleached coral at great barrier reef

Although this mass coral bleaching is a cause for concern, there is no need to panic just yet if you want to explore the reef. Because of the vast area, some parts of the Great Barrier Reef have been badly hit whereas others are still as colourful and vibrant as ever. Most of the 2016 losses have occurred in the far North area, which was the most pristine and untouched by humans.

Coral bleaching occurs when the coral expels a brown algae, leaving the corals a brilliant white. This is caused by rising sea temperatures, which is a consequence of climate change. For three consecutive months in the Great Barrier Reef, water temperatures were 1C higher than average, and the coral couldn’t cope with this rise. Heat stress causes the coral to start producing the algae as a toxic compound.

Other Factors

As if the worst mass bleaching in history wasn’t enough for the reef to cope with, it has also had to deal with tropical storms which cause damage to the coral. The long term health of the reef is also at risk of crown of thorns starfish, which is a coral predator, so even the coral which has escaped this particular bleaching event is not 100% safe from threats.

If you haven’t yet explored the Great Barrier Reef, now is probably a good time to go before it is gradually destroyed by climate change. Professor Terry Hughes from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies warns that bleaching could become an annual event.

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