The Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven wonders of the natural world, has thrived as a vibrant, beautiful marine ecosystem for many years. It attracts millions of tourists, brings in billions of dollars annually to Australia’s economy, and offers scientists a plethora of living organisms to study. Over the years, as climate change has worsened, marine biologists and climate change scientists have warned our society of the detrimental effects that global warming could have on the Great Barrier Reef. Today, in 2018, it is not only dying, but it is damaged beyond recovery.
In 2016, the reef experienced what is called “bleaching,” which happens when the reef’s environment becomes too warm. Even though coral reefs thrive in warmer waters, if they become even a degree too warm, it can cause irreparable damage to the coral. The process is called “bleaching” because the coral loses its color when it is dying. During a heat wave, corals lose the single-celled photosynthetic symbiotes which give them their food; as a result, the coral loses not only its food source but its color as well. The 2016 bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef killed nearly one third of the reef’s coral, and scientists say that it will never be the same again, even if some of it does grow back.
When the 2016 heat wave caused bleaching in the reef, it was the fourth time since 1998 that the reef had experienced large-scale bleaching. Scientists say that in the 20th century, mass bleachings typically occurred once every 27 years. However, if we continue on our current trajectory of global warming and pollution, bleachings could occur as often as every 2 years by 2034. The current rate is once every six years, which is still a dangerously high frequency. Even if we can slow the rate of bleachings, the reef will never look the same, and it will never fully recover from the damage that has been done.
Earlier this year, the Australian government pledged to set aside 500 million Australian dollars to help the reef and prevent further damage. After all, the reef is an enormous economic asset to Australia. Much of the funding to help save the reef has been coming from private donors, rather than world governments. Some environmentalists are upset that the Australian government is not looking to go further and try to eradicate the initial cause of the problem, as they haven’t spent a lot of money on switching to clean energy or decreasing coal consumption.
If nothing changes in the way we address climate change, and if we continue on this trajectory, the reef will never stand a chance of recovery. If the world could honor the commitments made in the Paris Agreement to help prevent rising global temperatures, then scientists believe the reef could be saved, at least for the next few decades. However, we will never be able to fully restore the reef to its former health and glory. The marine life around the reef has also been greatly affected, either dying off, moving to a different region, or adapting as a species. Regardless, the marine life of the reef will also be forever affected.
Marine biologists are working on several solutions to help save the reef. One of their ideas is to essentially help the reef evolve fast enough to keep up with climate change. To do this, scientists will search for samples of resilient coral that did not die in the bleachings, and then they will replicate that coral in a lab by growing more. They will then try to put this back into the environment to encourage new, more resilient growth that will be more heat resistant. Some other potential solutions are more reliant on technology. For example, one method involves creating a reflective surface film for the water that would cool down temperatures below by reflecting sunlight. Another method involves the use of massive water mixing units to bring up colder water from the depths to cool down water near the surface and manage temperatures.
The reef may be beyond repair now, and we know that it can never be restored to its full beauty. However, there is still hope that we can save what remains, and even encourage a considerable amount of regrowth, either naturally or with human help. Visit this site to see how you can help save coral reefs around the world to ensure that these natural beauties live for many more years.
Abigail is a rising sophomore at Emerson College studying for a BFA in creative writing. She spends most of her free time during the year working for her school newspaper, but also enjoys going to poetry readings, spending time with friends, and cheering for her hometown Philadelphia sports teams.