As sea temperatures rise with the ever-growing impact of climate change, we are left to witness the deadly ripple effects expand across one of the most richly biodiverse areas on earth and one of the seven greatest natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef.
In the space of a year, aerial and underwater surveys have revealed that this planetary gem is, without a doubt, spiraling into terminal decline at an unprecedented rate. Nine hundred miles out of the 1,400 that make up the Great Barrier Reef has undergone severe bleaching in recent years. In a report published by Nature, it has been found that during the years of 2015-2016 “record temperatures triggered a pan-tropical episode of coral bleaching, the third global-scale event since mass bleaching was first documented in the 1980s”. While controls on water quality and fishing pressure may afford some resistance to combat mass bleaching, elevated sea temperatures and severe weather events are the primary contributor to the rapidly increasing death of these fragile ecosystems. Therefore, the single most important response in order to save what’s left of this natural wonder is immediate global action to curb climate change by reigning in our greenhouse gas emissions.
How did the Great Barrier Reef reach ‘terminal stage’? – video explainer
Sprawling across more than 300,000 square kilometers, the Great Barrier Reef is the only living organic collective visible from Earth’s orbit. It was declared a World Heritage area in 1981, a worthy designation for this fantastically rich life-form that provides a protective home and nursery ground to 411 types of hard coral, one-third of the world’s soft corals, 4,000 types of mollusks,134 species of sharks and rays, six of the world’s seven species of threatened marine turtles, and more than 30 species of marine mammals, including the vulnerable dugong. Among the cays and islands that dot this marine ecosystem are critical and globally important breeding colonies of seabirds and marine turtles and home to the world’s largest breeding grounds for the vulnerable green sea turtle.
A coral reef is made up of tiny individual coral polyps, similar to sea anenomes and jellyfish. Each polyp forms a hard shell of aragonite by taking calcium and carbonate ions from seawater to build a cup-shaped skeleton made of calcium carbonate, or limestone, resulting in what we know as coral. The polyps gather into colonies creating colorful, Dr. Seuss-like forests made up of hundreds of species of hard corals, sea pens, blue corals, soft corals and sea fans. While the polyps are colorless, their brilliant hues are derived from pigments inside several million zooxanthellae (tiny algae) that exists within the living tissue of just one square inch of coral. And these organisms are exceedingly sensitive to changes in their environment, rising sea temperatures can wreak havoc on the polyps, killing them and leaving only an empty skeleton behind.
While I’ve not been lucky enough to have visited this international treasure, I think it’s almost better that we leave this declining ecosystem to face the future without the harmful impact that human visitors to the reef can impart. While only 7% of the reef is set aside for tourism, it is focused on the most richly biodiverse areas to provide optimal snorkeling and scuba diving. While experiencing this treasure can leave lasting memories, it can also leave lasting damage as a result of foot traffic on the fragile structures, pollution from boats and structural devastation from dropped boat anchors. The corals most overwhelmed by heat stress lay primarily in the highest tourist-laden areas of the reef. And, despite the accelerated damage, no reef tourism operators have encountered any regulation or havehalted taking tourists out to these hardest-hit and therefore most sensitive areas.
The Great Barrier Reef also faces severe threat from dredging operations to expand coal ports along the eastern coast of Queensland. Expansions are calling for the dredging of more than 50 million cubic meters of ocean floor, much of which would be dumped into the reef’s sensitive waters, causing blackout plumes of sediment that can drift up to 50 miles, smothering corals and threatening the survival of all species that call the reef home. Sadly, as of this month, the already-dismal fate of the reef may be on it’s way to being sealed: Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull met with multinational conglomerate Adani to finalize a deal to construct the largest coal mine in Australia – just 300 kilometres from the Great Barrier Reef, despite warnings from conservationists of the lasting destruction that could cause. But recent photos depicting black sludge inundating the wetlands, which has led to the pervading belief in Queensland that Adani might not get the financing to start to break ground. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean the project will be halted. Rather, a source from the Queensland government has stated that a more affordable “scaled back” project could go ahead.
“The Caley Valley Wetlands today are a microcosm of what could happen to our Great Barrier Reef if the Carmichael mine and port go ahead.” –Australian Marine Conservation Society Great Barrier Reef Campaign Director, Imogen Zethoven
But rather than slump defeated, we need to take action, and that starts with education and spreading awareness. Not only could we lose an international treasure and a massive trove of biodiversity forever, we also will see the disappearance of a major food source for humans, loss of protective natural breakwaters that minimize coastal devestation from storms, and a vast economic value through the fisheries and tourism industry amounting to $100,000 to 600,000 per square kilometer per year (Source: UNEP-WCMC, 2006). So even people who might not see wildlife biodiversity and conservation as a priority might be more influenced by the thought of what else could be lost that might more directly (in their minds) impact them.
But no matter the reason, let’s Fight for Our Reef! The Australian Marine Conservation Society is running the “Fight for Our Reef” campaign and we all can join to keep updated on the latest news and show our support.
Tags: australia, climate change, coal mine, coal ports, coral bleaching, coral reef, dredging, environment, fish, Great barrier reef, marine conservation, marine ecosystems, marine life, marine mammals, natural wonder, queensland, sea temperatures, sea turtles, seabirds, tourism, vulnerable species, wildlife conservation