Coral Bleaching: Great Barrier Reef Dying But Not Dead Yet

Our oceans are warming by the year and one direct effect is the coral bleaching taking place in one of the most biologically active ecosystems on the planet. The Great Barrier Reef is experiencing severe bleaching for the second year in a row, which has environmentalists concerned. According to the results of a recent series of helicopter surveys, the middle part – around 300 miles – is slowly dying under reef stress.

Coral Bleaching: A Serious Issue

The largest coral reef on Earth is currently experiencing its fourth mass bleaching. Previous events took place in 1998, 2002 and 2016. There’s no denying coral bleaching is a genuine environmental problem. In particularly warm summers (and warmer waters), stressed corals expel the colorful algae that live in their structures. This causes the reef to lose its color – turning into a sickening bleached white – and slowly die from lack of food.

The complex balance between the coral and the symbiotic algae is easily disrupted. That’s basically what bleaching is. Without the algae, the coral tries to minimize its losses by living in a “standby” mode. This state is extremely vulnerable to even more bleaching. Data shows only one third of the Great Barrier Reef is still unaffected.

While the story of the Great Barrier Reef is definitely a red flag for climate change, the media quickly turned it into something else. This conservative bit of science reporting became the winning ticket for many news outlets. Hours after the first report was published, the headlines talked about a Great Barrier Reef barely surviving its “terminal stage.” This is where facts started to get twisted.

coral bleaching

Dying But Not Dead

Many of you may know that a bleached reef is not a dead reef. However, it wasn’t long until the climate-change naysayers took the chance to accuse “greenies” of using “scaremongering” tactics. They already believe environmentalists “don’t do science,” and this exaggeration of coral bleaching effects fed right into their twisted views. Therefore, the backlash from climate-change deniers was inevitable.

Some believe the conservation card was overplayed in regard to the bleaching event, and we tend to agree. The Great Barrier Reef is not in terminal decline, and there’s a simple reason why that isn’t the case. Even though coral bleaching is incredibly concerning, it simply does not mean death. The scientists involved in the study have clearly stated that, “Bleached corals are not necessarily dead corals.” In other words, coral reefs affected by bleaching can indeed recover. We can hope for the best, but we also have to do something about it.

Let’s look at reefs in other parts of the world to gain some perspective. Scientists monitor 21 reefs in the Seychelles, 12 of which have successfully recovered after a coral bleaching episode in 1998. (The other nine have turned into seaweed-covered ruins). The same 1998 temperature surge affected many reefs in Palau. Most of them recovered within a decade of the bleaching event.

Meanwhile, a remote reef system in Western Australia suffered in the same bleaching episode. More than 90 percent of the corals were affected and remained bleached for six years. By 2010, scientists reported the reef system had recovered almost completely.

Reason for Hope

All of these examples point to one conclusion: Reefs can recover. Not all of them can return to their original state, but we must give them enough time and protection from further threats. This is, however, the first time parts of the Great Barrier Reef have had to recover from bleaching events occurring back-to-back (in 2016 and 2017). But seeing the reef system has successfully recovered from the disaster of 1998 and 2002, it can probably recover again.

What the Great Barrier Reef needs is time and the protection offered by a commitment to global carbon emission targets. After all, it must survive this latest episode of bleaching, seeing its huge environmental and economic importance. This ecosystem is worth £3.5bn to the Australian economy annually, and it offers jobs to 69,000 workers. It’s not just an active, three-dimensional maze of biological interactions. It’s also a golden egg for Australia. There’s no way the government will squander that willingly.

Coral Bleaching Affects Tourism

There are also economic considerations in addition to the environmental loss that would be the death of the Great Barrier Reef. According to estimates, it could cost Australia more than a million tourists each year, as well as AUS$1.0 billion (US$760 million) in lost revenue. Scientists fear the coral will never recover after the two consecutive years of bleaching at the World Heritage-protected site.

A recent study conducted by Australia’s Climate Council found further damage to the 2,300-kilometer (1,400-mile) long reef. If the bleaching continues, it could severely affect tourism in the area, as well as cost around 10,000 people their jobs. In the end, preserving the Great Barrier Reef is not just an environmental issue. It’s also a matter of conserving one of Australia’s greatest economic assets.

However, there’s also a matter of time. Even if the reef damaged by bleaching does eventually bounce back, scientists believe it could take up to a decade. Not even the fastest growing corals will recover faster than that. In addition, if more mass bleaching events occur, tourism areas linked to the Great Barrier Reef will experience declines. While there were around 2.8 million visitors in 2015, the tourism would reduce to 1.7 million annually.

More Threats to the Great Barrier Reef

In addition to another round of bleaching, the reef system is also under pressure from reckless development, farming run-off, and the invasive species. Not to mention the site suffered the wrath of Cyclone Debbie last month. The most affected were the southern areas, exactly the ones that had largely escaped the bleaching so far.

The cyclone has caused another setback. According to aerial assessments, flood plumes from two rivers swelled by the cyclone fill the reef waters with sediment and nitrogen pollution. Sea grass and coral reefs can be further damaged by restricting light. But even so, the Great Barrier Reef is not terminal, not just yet. It’s just another flag waving, trying to warn us about climate change. What are we going to do about it?

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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