Ominous. Expansive. Alive. The first time I encountered the Great Barrier Reef I was overcome with awe, fear, and inspiration. An underground world so undisturbed by the trivial nuances of every day life; a world untouched by human society – or so it seems. A school of fish so bright they seem unreal, a living structure so large that it can be seen from space, an ecosystem so perfectly balanced that the slightest change can cause disaster. There truly are no words fit to describe its splendor, but we attempt to make sense of it anyway.
The only thing we know for sure about the GBR is that it’s dying. Death and damage to the coral life is at a peak; nearly a third of the world’s reef formations are lost. Coral reefs are among the most vulnerable ecosystems to climate change because of their high sensitivity to rising temperatures. Unfortunately, coral reef formations are my favorite.
Despite its unprecedented number of different species, there are many wakes of life yet to be discovered and recorded. The GBR is the largest reef system on planet Earth, encompassing 2,300 kilometers along the northeast coast of Australia from the Torres Strait in the north to Fraser island in the south. The reef is composed of over 900 individual islands, each with their own unique plethora of life. There are over 400 types of coral, 1500 species of tropical fish, and 200 types of birds that inhabit the reef.
What is causing such a rapid death in one of the largest natural structures on our planet? The news is often disjointed and presented in bursts of information and facts, which are quickly forgotten when the next story arises. Here, at MY GREAT BARRIER REEF, we will follow the story of the reasons and records of the death of the GBR through intensive research with the help of other media entities along with the people who care about it the most, you.
In a 2005 report by the Queensland government in conjunction with the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), it was stated that the Great Barrier Reef could lose 95% of its living tissue by 2050 if ocean temperatures continue to increase by the annual rate of 1.5 degree Celcius. The problem is, what do we do with this information? Talking about climate change is really tricky, so I’ll break it down as best as possible:
Rising temperatures obviously raise sea temperatures. Higher sea temperatures have negative effects on coral systems, which are the upholding structure that bind coral ecosystems. Corals, both soft and hard, are essentially the skeleton of the entire body. Without coral, no other part of the system can function correctly. Temperature controls the rate of reef growth. So when natural processes break down (which is referred to as the process of thermal stress), the mutual dependence between fish, plants, coral, and algae is deeply disturbed. None can function without the other. Corals bleach under thermal stress, which means that the symbiotic algae on the coral separate from it, and take the color with them. This has been one of the main causes of coral death in the last 20 years. To learn more about the types of coral and their creation, read on here.
Ocean Acidification disturbs the process of forming shells and skeletons for marine animals. When the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – which is on the rise due to the emission of fossil fuels – the CO2 gets absorbed with the sea water, creating acid and changing the pH level. The binding acid in turn creates a biocarbonate ion that would normally be available for marine animals to make calcium shells with. Basically, the acidification leaves less and less resources for marine animals to grow. For a more detailed explanation on ocean acidification, read here.
Climate change brings about other factors as well. The GBR is currently “under attack” by a new species of coral-munching starfish (COTS) that is attributed as a major cause of coral death from 1960-1985.
In early October, scientists released a shocking study as to how these slight environmental changes made and will continue to make profound changes to the GBR. Over half of the GBR has disappeared in the last 27 years, and will continue to decline at a steady rate if global warming continues. There was a major decline in coral from 28% to 13.8%, 10% of which is due to thermal stress.
With great change comes great denial. Governments, and in particular the Australian government, has been denying the GBR’s degradation for years in the hopes of a recovery that does not require overwhelming effort on their part. Everyone assumed due to its size that it would naturally recover. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The study made it perfectly clear: something must be done to cease destruction of one of the world’s most beautiful natural sites. Short-term solutions include the destruction of COTS. Short term solutions proposed by WWF Australia include cutting reef pollution, ending poor fishing practices, placing stronger safeguards on coral management, maintaining policy and planning protection, and maintaining relevant agency budgets.
None of these solutions address the impending doom that slowly eats away at coral reefs all over the planet: climate change. How is the degradation of the GBR presented in the news? Will it survive? Can we do anything about it? Does anyone really care? These are just some of the questions arising as I follow this story. A story about life and death, change and stability. A story that may be the most important story of our generation.