A Nightmare Is Unfolding In The Great Barrier Reef

A Nightmare Is Unfolding in the Great Barrier Reef

If scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef is on your bucket list, you might want to book tickets soon. This week, marine biologists dropped some horribly depressing news: the Great Barrier Reef is dying. The world's largest reef is in the midst of a widespread coral bleaching event, and scientists aren't sure whether it will fully recover. Over the past few days, Terry Hughes of James Cook University has led aerial surveys of more than 500 reefs from Cairns to Papa New Guinea, including the most pristine sections of the Great Barrier Reef. Everywhere Hughes travelled, he was met with a nightmarish scene — the ghostly white remains of a once vibrant ecosystem. All told, Hughes estimates that 95 per cent of the northern Great Barrier Reef is "severely bleached", marking the worst such event on record.

"Almost without exception, every reef we flew across showed consistently high levels of bleaching, from the reef slope right up onto the top of the reef," Hughes said in a statement. "This has been the saddest research trip of my life."

A Nightmare Is Unfolding in the Great Barrier Reef

Image: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

Coral reefs are extremely temperature-sensitive, and when the water gets a bit too toasty, they expel their symbiotic algae, called zooxanthellae. When this happens, the coral loses both its vibrant colour and its ability to feed itself. Bleaching leaves reefs more susceptible to disease and starvation.

Coral bleaching events used to be infrequent and geographically restricted, but recently, they have become much more common, widespread and devastating. The first global bleaching event occurred during the 1997-1998 El Niño and killed a whopping 18 per cent of corals across the planet.

Since 2014, we've been witness to a souped-up repeat of that event. Corals are bleaching everywhere, because the planet has been too damn hot for too many months on end. In the fall, the US National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted that the current global bleaching epidemic would impact nearly 40 per cent of all reefs. In February, NOAA added that this year's monster El Niño was exacerbating the die-off which might not end until 2017.

A Nightmare Is Unfolding in the Great Barrier Reef

Image: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

Coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef is a piece of a much bigger picture, and it shows us that even the most pristine ecosystems on Earth are susceptible to the impacts of climate change. The real concern is that these reefs — which provide habitat to roughly a quarter of all marine species — won't be able to muster a full recovery. "You have reefs getting hammered time and time again, year after year," NOAA oceanographer Mark Eakin told Gizmodo last month. "Recovery at this point is very limited."

Like I said — make sure you get that scuba trip in soon.


Top: A portion of the Great Barrier Reef, photographed during a survey in March 2016. Image: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

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    Meanwhile NSW, the conservative (oxymoron) government wants to hold a public debate on whether climate change exists.

    Last edited 30/03/16 1:54 pm

    Look, that's all well and good, but the mining industry can't wait for it to finish dying fully before they cut a giant cargo lane through the middle of it... that's just financially irresponsible.

    The reef can die around the massive and deliberate human damage, thankyouverymuch. It's already doomed, after all, so the government agrees that there's no harm in speeding the process up.

    I cant believe you are still dredging up the old coral bleaching hysteria.


      Yes and your article from wattsupwithhat back in 2013 has so much more credibility that the BBC, WWF and the University of Queensland.

      Notice it's adapt itself to "Moderate Climate Change". What is happening is NOT "Moderate".

    They've been sprouting this crap for 30 years and it's still there. If it does eventually die, no doubt the coral will set up shop in a better place for it. Somewhere a bit cooler.

      In a few thousand years, perhaps, if it can stay ahead of the 20km/yr warming front (were you aware of that?) on its 10km/yr max. relocation speed. Or it could just extinct itself for all eternity. You optimist, you.

        One thing about nature is that if it can make a home somewhere, it will. Maybe the great barrier reef will die but there are many other places on this earth that a reef could live and are doing that right this minute. The ocean is a huge place and while some places are getting too hot for a reef, some places are warning up cold areas enough for a reef to survive.

          I'll reiterate that last bit - you (kindhearted) optimist, you. Nature will always find a way! What is 'nature'? Is it Earth? Is it all the species currently on it? Is it the ~99% of all species that have existed on Earth that are now extinct? Sure, LIFE will go on. We'll just lose a bunch of the most amazing creatures and spectacular biodiversity that we may ever know on the way.

          I say kindhearted because this will probably leave the way clear for a whole new range of amazing species in a few tens of millions of years.

    And of course the massive increase in shipping around that part of the coast in the last few decades has absolutely no impact or nothing to do with it one bit.

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