In the past couple of days, national and international news sources have been reporting that global warming is causing irreversible damage to the Great Barrier Reef. Known as the world’s largest coral reef system with over 2,900 individual reefs, The Great Barrier Reef has reportedly lost half of its coral since 2016 according to The Atlantic. Located in the Coral Sea, off the coast of Queensland, Australia, The Great Barrier Reef is well-known for being the world’s largest single structure made by living organisms and can be seen from outer space. It supports a wide diversity of marine life – including whales, sharks, turtles, and crustaceans.
However, in most recent years, damage to the reef has reduced the size of this natural coral system and has also radically altered the mix of its marine species according to scientists. In a New York Times article published earlier today, researchers have noted that nearly one-third of the reef’s coral were killed when ocean temperatures spiked in 2016, as a result of global warming. The underwater heat wave that damaged huge sections of the Great Barrier Reef was so severe that scientists have reported that the natural wonder will probably never look the same again. Once labelled by CNN as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef’s entire ecological identity has changed forever due to the conclusion that losses in certain species has irreversibly damaged the make-up of this extraordinary ecosystem.
The director of a government-funded center for coral reef studies at James Cook University, Terry P. Hughes, is also the lead author of a study currently being done on the deteriorating state of the Great Barrier Reef. Hughes has reported that in 2016 alone, “about 30 % of the Great Barrier Reef’s corals were lost, with the most severe damage in the isolated northern sector”. Last year another ocean heat, took another 20% of the corals, according to Hughes.
The back to back record-breaking marine heat wave is an “unprecedented” event in the reefs recorded history according to researchers and scientists studying the effects of global warming on coral reefs. The higher temperatures create a dilemma for the reefs because the excessive heat results in a massive coral bleaching event, according to Scientific American. “Healthy corals have a symbiotic relationship with tiny algae, which live inside them and give them bright colors. But when corals experience heat stress, they expel their algae, turning a bleached white color in the process.”
Although bleaching isn’t necessarily a death sentence for corals, extremely warm periods can kills reefs before their algae can get a chance to regrow and recover. Researchers have concluded by examining the Great Barrier Reef, that some coral species are better at “weathering heat stress” than others. Surveys done on the The Great Barrier Reef have suggested that many areas have seen a decline in fast-growing species, such as staghorn and tabular corals, with slower-growing, simpler species being left behind. Researchers have stated that this is a perfect example of natural-selection at work.
As a reef structure that is composed of and built by billions of tiny organisms, the conclusions being drawn about the Great Barrier Reef presents both good and bad news. On one hand, the survival of “slower-growing , hardier coral species” suggests that there’s still a future for the reef, although it may look different from what it was in the 20th century. On the other hand, many of the surviving corals are much simpler due to their physical structure compared to their “faster-growing” counterparts, which were notable for their “complex, branching 3-D designs.
-Sample image of healthy coral structure, source unknown
As a World Heritage Site since 1981, The Great Barrier Reef is in danger of never fully recovering from the recent rise in global temperatures that has shown to have a negative impact on ecosystems around the globe. According to researchers, prospects for a full recovery are slim. “Even if some of the faster-growing species started to make a comeback, it would still take at least a decade for them to return to their previous levels,” says sources quoted in Scientific America’s most recent article on the future of the Great Barrier Reef. According to many in the scientific community in Australia and around the globe, it’s more likely that more heat waves will occur in the meantime, causing more damage before the reef has fully rebuilt itself. With an area of 134,634 mi², the future of the Great Barrier Reef relies on the global response to climate change and on the research used to discern the best course of action for saving one of Earth’s most beloved seven natural wonders.
Til next time,
Nina Osagie-Egbon is a member of the student Communications Team in ACP/SUST 250 “The Sustainable University” class at Roosevelt University in Chicago. This spring 2018 semester, the Communications Team is writing for and editing the RU Green Campus blog and social media channels.
Harvey, Chelsea. “Recent Ocean Heat Waves Have ‘Forever’ Altered Great Barrier Reef.” Scientific American, 19 Apr. 2018, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/recent-ocean-heat-waves-have-forever-altered-great-barrier-reef/
Mooney, Chris. “Global Warming Has Changed the Great Barrier Reef ‘Forever,’ Scientists Say.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 18 Apr. 2018, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2018/04/18/global-warming-has-changed-the-great-barrier-reef-forever-scientists-say/
Williams, Jacqueline. “Damage to Great Barrier Reef From Global Warming Is Irreversible, Scientists Say.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Apr. 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/19/world/australia/australia-barrier-reef.html.
Meyer, Robinson. “Since 2016, Half of All Coral in the Great Barrier Reef Has Died.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 18 Apr. 2018, http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/04/since-2016-half-the-coral-in-the-great-barrier-reef-has-perished/558302/.