Outside Magazine declared the iconic Great Barrier Reef dead in a recent viral obituary that caused Twitter to explode with the news:
At least 20% of the 1,400-mile long UNESCO World Heritage site has died from mass-bleaching events. This phenomenon has become a common occurrence in tropical reef systems in the last ten years.
Coral isn't made up of one organism; rather, millions of tiny polyps form symbiotic relationships with algae. The corals provide a hard skeleton shelter and, in turn, the algae photosynthesize food. When corals become stressed by extreme changes in environmental conditions, such as temperature, light, or nutrition levels, they begin to expel that algae, which turns them completely white (or “bleached.”)
Corals form the foundation of an expansive, biodiverse ecosystem that, when disrupted, spells disaster for the millions of marine animals that call the coral reef home.
Since February of 2016, a deadly combination of climate change and one of the strongest El Nino effects in recent history triggered the worst mass coral bleaching event ever recorded on the reef, which affected 93% of the coral by April.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen mass bleaching kill off parts of the Great Barrier Reef. Severe bleaching occurred in 1998, 2002, and 2006 following thermal stress. The reef hasn’t been healthy for years, regularly receiving D’s on its health report card in reef water quality.
Changing temperature isn’t the only stress the Great Barrier Reef is under. Nearly 2.62 million visitors mobbed the reef last year, according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority. This continues a sharp upward trend since 2010 as the destination becomes increasingly popular.
Source: Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority. “EMC” is a specific charge for visitors entering the park. Note that this chart only tracks visitors that went through commercial operations.
The good news: The Great Barrier Reef isn’t dead…yet. But climate change, mass bleaching, and tourism all put the reef at significant risk.
That doesn’t mean it’s time to completely give up hope, though. Scientists criticized Outside’s tongue-in-cheek obituary, urging concerned citizens to focus on combating climate change and preserving the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef.
Long blamed by scientists as pushing commercial interests over environmental ones, the Australian government pledged a $2 billion investment in reef health as part of the first-ever Reef 2050 Plan. This includes introducing legislation banning sea-based waste disposal, water quality research and improvement, and managing harmful invasive species such as the crown-of-thorns starfish.
While the reef may not be dead yet, Outside’s viral obituary did one thing right: it sparked a global conversation about the state of our marine ecosystems. The question is, how can we reverse the damage and save our reefs?
If we do nothing, the obituary may come true after all.