There has been a lot of buzz lately about the Great Barrier Reef, between Outside Magazines viral article and at least two Pixar movies. The barrier reef is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been declared the greatest aquatic wonder in the world. The GBR is firmly ingrained in our collective human consciousness, and in Australia’s annual tourism brochures. Unfortunately, 22% of the reef is already dead, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. Climate change is an undeniable fact, and we now have a 1,400 miles long mound of evidence that we can no longer ignore.
Mr. Ray’s Science Class
The Great Barrier Reef is made up of 2,900 individual reefs and 1,050 islands. It is larger than the United Kingdom, has more biodiversity than all of Europe, and can be seen from space. It is home to 1,625 species of fish, 3,000 species of mollusk, 450 species of coral, 220 species of birds, and 30 species of whales and dolphins. It is also the largest breeding ground for green turtles and has the largest population of dugong -or sea cows- in the world. The is roughly 25 million years old, and is one of the most vibrant and beautiful places on the planet. We speak that last part from experience.
In 1975, Australia designated large parts of the GBR as the Great Barrier Reef Maritime Park. This move limited fishing and other activities in the area that could be considered harmful. In 1981, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization declared the area a World Heritage Site. This designation further came with a lot privileges and protections. Unfortunately, also in 1981 the first mass bleaching occured, meaning that the coral lost its color due to soaring ocean temperatures. It would only the be the first in a long line of such incidents, enough over the 35 years to make UNESCO question if they should put the barrier reef on their World Heritage in Danger list as well. We cannot deny the facts any longer, because like a character at the beginning of a Pixar movie, the GBR is dying.
A Crush-ing Reality
During the past 27 years the barrier reef has lost half of its coral covering. Sitting about 1,250 miles off the coast of Queensland, Australia it has been affected by severe storms, invasive species, pollution run-off, coastal port development, dredging, and increased coal shipping. However, even those factors are minimum compared to the coral bleaching that has been caused by massive shifts in ocean temperature, thanks to climate change. The color of coral -as well as their nourishment- comes from the algae that live on their surfaces. The algae photosynthesize the sunlight and make sugars that the coral feeds on. But when temperatures are too high the algae produce too much oxygen. That can be toxic in high concentrations, and the coral are then forced to discard the algae to survive. Unfortunately, that leaves them without their main source of nutrients until new algae can grow back. These coral bleaching events have become incredibly common in the past 35 years, and if they happen in rapid succession the coral starves and dies. Currently, it has been happening every two to three years since the turn of the millennium.
This is compounded by other related factors, such as the explosive growth of seaweed, which thrives in warmer waters. As ocean temperatures increase so does seaweed, and much how trees compete for sunlight in a forest so do the algae and the seaweed. When the seaweed begin to thrive the algae does not and the coral beneath it begin to die and break apart because they are not getting the nutrients they need. The acidity level of the ocean has also been increasing over the past two decades, thanks to an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. CO2 emissions are absorbed by the ocean and they then eat away at the coral itself, weakening the reef structure.
It’s hard to really fathom the ecological impacts of what the world will look like if -or when- the Great Barrier Reef finally does die. We have already seen what happens on smaller scales. Sections of the barrier reef are already dead. When the coral of an area dies the algae actually starts to consume it. After that, the whole structure is doomed to collapse, along with the entire ecosystem. Small fish -like Nemo and Marlin- that eat the coral no longer have a food source or a place to live/hide from larger predators. Larger fish who eat those smaller fish eventually wipe out their prey, and then they too start to die off without a food source. The same happens to the larger fish and birds that eat them. Without coral acting as homes and breeding grounds for fish and other aquatic creatures the entire landscape of an area undergoes a radical change within only a few years. If that happens to the entire GBR, you are talking an ecological disaster that will affect hundreds of thousands of species up the food chain… including humans.
Finding Common Sense
Maybe that is fitting, considering that it is humans that started this slowly rolling environmental disaster. There is no more way for us to deny that the carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere are increasing, and have been increasing exponentially over the past decade. We are the factor. We’re sorry if that upsets you, but it is the overwhelming scientific consensus. Our factories, cars, and even farming has dramatically increased CO2 levels. This means that more sunlight is being trapped in our atmosphere and warming the planet, and a lot of that heat is absorbed by the oceans. Yet, that is not our only problem. As we mentioned earlier, the oceans -which are three-quarters of our planet’s surface- are very good at absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. This increases not only the acidity of our high seas, but also speeds up the process of ocean warming and the growth of nutrient choking life forms, like seaweed.
Thankfully, those aren’t the only things we’re doing. There are also many people on this planet working hard to try and save natural landmarks like the Great Barrier Reef. Leading the charge in this area is Australia itself, which makes sense. The Land Down Under receives almost $6 billion in tourism revenue from the barrier reef each year and that means they have an economically invested interest in saving it as well as ecological. The Reef 2050 Plan is a report of a 151 actions that need to be taken to save the GBR. It also constitutes a $2 billion dollar investment of resources aimed at improving the barrier reef’s health. So far they have accomplished 29 of the stated 151 actions, but it has been acknowledged that the process needs to be accelerated if we truly do hope to save the GBR from destruction.
You see, if the the CO2 levels in our atmosphere reach 450 parts per million -which is estimated to happen in 2025- than there will be no saving the Great Barrier Reef. It will be gone forever and our children will not only live in a world with less biodiversity, warmer oceans, and less seafood buffets, but in a world where they will never get to experience the beauty and wonder of the barrier reef. To them it will just remain as some fantastical and unreal setting in old Pixars movie.