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We can’t pretend we’re doing enough if we want to give the Great Barrier Reef a chance to survive | Adam Morton
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We can’t pretend we’re doing enough if we want to give the Great Barrier Reef a chance to survive | Adam Morton

What can we do to ensure that we all pay attention? While this is not a new inquiry, it is a valid one, particularly following the announcement that the Great Barrier Reef is experiencing another widespread bleaching event caused by global warming – the fifth one since 2016.

There is no clearer visual demonstration of the climate crisis than what is happening to the reef. It’s a globally unique landmark, made up of thousands of individual reefs and islands and an extraordinary and eccentric array of species. It has been growing into its modern form, spread across an area the size of Italy, for about 8,000 years. People travel from across the planet to witness it. And we can literally see the impact of climate change on it as it changes colour and loses life in real time.

Mass bleaching on the reef was not commonly observed until 1998, however, it has occurred a total of seven times since then. The most recent instances were in 2016, 2017, 2020, 2022, and 2024.

Coral bleaching is a brutal process caused by inflated ocean temperatures. The coral becomes stressed and ejects the tiny marine algae, known as zooxanthellae, that live in its tissue and give most of its colour and energy. With the zooxanthellae gone, the coral starves and its bone-white calcium skeleton becomes visible.

If the high temperature subsides quickly, the coral is able to regenerate. However, if the high temperature persists, the coral will undergo die-off. In extreme situations, the bleaching process is accelerated and the coral dies rapidly. This causes the coral’s bleached, white appearance to turn into a brown, dirty appearance as it becomes overgrown with algae.

This is a typical occurrence during a single event. However, we are no longer in a one-time event situation and the consequences of bleaching are accumulative. The entire reef’s stretch has been greatly impacted at some point since 2016. Coral that undergoes bleaching and survives becomes more prone to disease and less able to withstand future bleaching events.

It seems that this could happen on an annual basis. The previous case of bleaching happened during a La Niña, which brings cooler ocean temperatures. This hints toward bleaching becoming a regular occurrence, if it isn’t already.

There is no unexpected information in this report. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change conducted a review of scientific studies and concluded that most tropical coral reefs would vanish even if the rise in global temperatures was kept to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. They also determined that these reefs would be in great danger with just a 1.2C increase.

The average temperature of the Earth has already reached this point and ocean temperatures, specifically, are increasing rapidly. Ocean temperatures have been at their highest recorded levels for approximately one year.

The current observations of the reef are indicative of a worldwide occurrence. According to the US Coral Reef Watch program, the Earth is on the brink of a fourth major coral bleaching event, which will impact reefs in the Pacific, Atlantic, and potentially the Indian Ocean.

However, despite efforts to combat it, false information continues to spread. There are individuals in Australia, often funded by wealthy climate change deniers in the mining sector, who argue that the Great Barrier Reef is not at risk. They elevate a few dissenting voices over overwhelming evidence from both national and international sources. It is probable that this will persist in the near future.

The truth is that the reef is not deceased – there are still lively corals and diverse ecosystems to be observed by visitors – but a transformation is taking place, and the outlook is grim.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has completed about two-thirds of their aerial surveys in the past few weeks, covering a significant portion of the reef’s length. Additional aerial and underwater surveys are still to be conducted.

The current heat stress on the reef’s southern and central regions is the most severe it has ever been, and it is the second worst in the northern areas. This is causing significant damage to shallow water corals, some of which have taken centuries to grow.

How will you utilize this information? While not everyone may have the opportunity to visit, the reef is definitely worth experiencing if possible. It continues to be a marvel. However, we must acknowledge that our current actions as a nation may not be sufficient in preserving its magnificence for future generations.

Rewording: It is evident that Australia alone cannot rescue the reef. However, it is difficult to argue that other countries should take on a larger role when Australia still has a target of reducing emissions that aligns with a global temperature increase of approximately 2C. This level is one that scientists project would result in the loss of 99% of tropical reefs.

It becomes even more challenging when there is no defined strategy for gradually discontinuing the creation of new coal and gas projects, and many discussions suggest that these actions have no effect on the environment. This is proven false by the damage to the reef.

Source: theguardian.com