Great Barrier Reef Hit by Mass Bleaching Second Year in a Row

The results are out for the status of the Great Barrier Reef and they’re not good. According to an expansive aerial survey, the largest barrier reef in the world is still not recovering. Coral bleaching is ravaging it for the second year in a row, marking the first time the reef has not had a buffer period to recover between bleaching events.

Researchers at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Australian Institute of Marine Science are not happy. Six hours of flying over the reef between Cairns and Townsville, Australia, revealed worrying findings. According to a representative of the Marine Park Authority, the survey discovered more bleaching in the central part of the reef. It’s the same area which barely escaped severe bleaching in 2016.

What Are Coral Reefs?

Coral is a living organism, similar in structure to sea anemones and somewhat related to jellyfish as well. Coral polyps grow together in the shape of a colony, forming an exoskeleton and producing calcium. At the same time, corals are in an important symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae, a type of algae which grows at the bottom of the ocean. These unicellular life forms play a significant role in the health of the reef, as they absorb their carbon dioxide and other waste they generate. Fun fact: The zooxanthellae are also the reason why the reefs are so fabulously colored.

Under stressful conditions – including high water temperatures – the coral dispel the zooxanthellae. When the water cools back down, it has time to cultivate new algae, which helps it recover from bleaching and gain new color. However, when the water stays warm for longer periods, the coral suffocates as the zooxanthellae are not cleaning the CO2 and the waste.

Dying But There’s Still Hope

The urgent issue in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef goes way beyond the tourism concern. Thousands of people from around the world travel to the continent to see the mesmerizing colors of the coral reef. However, the recent situation could spell trouble for humankind. Even though the slow death of the largest coral structure may seem distant, it is in fact a warning of an imminent disaster. According to the Australian center, warmer oceanic temperatures driven by climate change have already caused a significant increase in coral bleaching around the globe.

As we said before, experts expect some of the coral’s parts to regain their vibrant colors when the temperatures cool down. However, researchers have discovered that some of the bleached coral has already experienced damage beyond recovery. This news comes in the context of the second major coral bleaching event in just as many years.

The situation encompasses more than just figuring out what will happen to the other coral ecosystems in the world if the bleaching doesn’t end. We’ve arrived at the point where the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and its potential death concerns the outcome of the human society.

Healthy parts of the Great Reef Barrier / Source

Saving the Coral Reef

Fortunately, scientists believe all is not yet forever lost. It’s true there is agreement in the scientific forums that the Great Barrier Reef may be dying. However, there’s still hope for recovery. According to coral reef expert Kim Cobb, we shouldn’t rush yet writing its obituary, as the ‘doomsday approach’ won’t help people become more engaged with the solutions. A fatalist look at climate change does more than put people off; it misinforms the public about the many ways we can go forward.

In spite of the current predictions, Cobb believes that a large part of the large barrier reef could survive way beyond 2050. The same could happen to other endangered coral reefs around the world. He also declared that articles that preach the damnation of all corals do not have their best interest at heart.

The good news in all of these ominous predictions is that these coral reefs are still alive. Moreover, they are capable of adapting to the changing climate, just as they have done before. For instance, the research team found out that some of the mature coral reefs change their algal partners. That way, they can create a symbiotic relationship with algae that are more tolerant to the warm temperatures.

Terry Hughes, the head of ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, said there is still hope. Saving the coral ecosystem from complete destruction is more than preserving the environment for future generations. It has ramifications tied to the human survival. The Food and Agriculture Organization released a report in 2014 revealing that coral reefs provide around 17 percent of the protein global requirement. In some particular areas – think the Maldives and Sierra Leone – the approximation may rise to 70 percent.

Solutions at Hand

Scientists believe there are several ways they can save the Great Barrier Reef and humanity as well. According to a study by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, the combination of warming waters and sea acidification is what causes the bleaching. This dangerous combo could also prove to be the ultimate demise of corals.

Based on their findings, a conservation strategy would be to add lime or bicarbonates to the warm water. This attempt would eventually reduce ocean acidity, but there’s an obstacle in employing this method. To achieve the desired result, researchers estimate we would need around 10 cubic kilometers of lime annually.

Meanwhile, some scientists proposed to address warming temperatures by building large shades on the reefs affected by bleaching in shallow waters. Another proposed solution is to start a massive replantation of corals. The varieties that are heat-tolerant could thrive in ocean parts not yet affected by climate change. This suggestion has made scientists consider the concept of gardening coral reefs.

However, when it comes to the global scale of destruction, these proposed strategies are limited to say the least. In the end, saving the dying Great Barrier Reef mostly depends on our ability to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Coral ecologist Peter Sale predicted that, by 2050, we could be living in a world without coral reefs. And, unfortunately, that planet will be significantly less welcoming. Another scenario predicts the reefs as we know now will be replaced by giant limestone structures, with small patches of living coral trying to survive on them.

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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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