Great Barrier Reef Experiences Worst Coral Die-Off Yet

Coral bleaching across Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef has been concerning scientists for a while, and now they say it’s reached the worst level yet recorded.

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral ecosystem, and as home to thousands of species it’s also an incredibly valuable marine ecosystem that is protected as a World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, it’s being threatened by climate change, which has caused massive die-offs of coral.

Coral has a symbiotic relationship with tiny algae, known as zooxanthellae, that provide it with food and give it its color. When coral is stressed because of high ocean temperatures — or other causes like pollution and acidification — it expels the algae living in its tissues, which exposes its white skeleton.

Researcher Grace Frank completes bleaching surveysResearcher Grace Frank completing bleaching surveys along a transect line, One Tree Reef, Capricorn Group of Islands, Southern Great Barrier Reef, November 2016. Credit: Tory Chase, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

Just a few months ago, researchers called what was happening there the worst bleaching event in the past 15 years, but now others who have surveyed the site say the Great Barrier Reef is experiencing the worst coral die-off ever recorded.

“Most of the losses in 2016 have occurred in the northern, most-pristine part of the Great Barrier Reef. This region escaped with minor damage in two earlier bleaching events in 1998 and 2002, but this time around it has been badly affected,” said Professor Terry Hughes, Director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies based at James Cook University, who undertook extensive aerial surveys at the height of the bleaching.

According to the ARC, the worst affected area – a 435 mile stretch of reefs in the northern region of the Great Barrier Reef – has lost an average of 67 percent of its shallow-water corals in just the past nine months.

CoralLossTIFCredit: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

The good news is that not all of the reef was equally affected, and coral can recover if stressors are reduced. However, researchers still fear it could take 10-15 years to regain lost corals. They are concerned that if there is another serious bleaching event, it could slow recovery even further.

Healthy Coral in the Capricorn Group of IslandsHealthy Coral in the Capricorn Group of Islands, Southern Great Barrier Reef, November 2016. Credit: Tory Chase, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

Aside from being an inherently valuable marine ecosystem, the Great Barrier Reef is also a huge draw for tourists that generates an estimated $5 billion in revenue every year. Earlier this spring, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee passed on an opportunity to include the Great Barrier Reef on an “in danger” list, but there’s still a chance that could happen within the next year.

Meanwhile, conservationists are hoping people will step up to address climate change in an effort to protect the reef from further damage.

“Climate change is killing the Great Barrier Reef,” Charlie Wood, director of 350.org, an anti-fossil fuels organization, told Scientific American. “The continued mining and burning of coal, oil and gas is irreparably damaging the climate. If we want our kids to enjoy the Great Barrier Reef for generations to come, we must act now to keep fossil fuels in the ground.”

Photo credit: Thinkstock

71 comments

Dagmara W
Dagmara W2 years ago

Thank you.

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eusebio manuel v

Thanks

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Melania P
Melania P2 years ago

This is just getting started :(

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Marie W
Marie W2 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Patricia Harris
Patricia Harris2 years ago

Ann, agreed! Which is why we need to keep on pushing until they finally listen. I know it's a really long and challenging battle, but when you care about something in life, you must never give up on it no matter how dire the situation looks. I have always wanted to visit your country at some time in the future, but I don't want to see it in it's current state. It will take many, many years for the Reef to recover if we managed to stop the destruction, but at least it will finally have that chance. I will keep on fighting til my last breath. :')

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Ann W
Ann W2 years ago

Hey Patricia - this topic that we care so passionately about attracted only 65 comments - and a lot of those are yours - when so many other stories attract hundreds. Just proves my point that people generally don't give a damn and certainly are not prepared to do anything about changing a situation if it involves an inconvenience to their current lifestyle. Sad, but true.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus C2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Angela K.
Angela K2 years ago

petition signed & shared

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Margie FOURIE
Margie FOURIE2 years ago

Thank you

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Patricia Harris
Patricia Harris2 years ago

And, since these fools love money so much, they should be focusing on this issue, because the Reef is what draws tourists to PAY to see it. Without the reef, the government can just kiss all that money goodbye!

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