New Survey Finds Bleaching in 93% of the Great Barrier Reef

Australia has come under fire recently for failing to protect the iconic Great Barrier Reef from mining and agricultural pollution, and now there’s more bad news.

An extensive aerial and underwater survey has found that a massive 93 percent of the reef has been affected by coral bleaching, a condition which occurs when stressed coral organisms expel the algae living within their tissues and turn white. In the northern section of the reef, the situation is even more dire, with 95 percent of the reefs severely bleached, with environmental groups calling the condition of the reefs the worst it’s ever been.

The study was conducted using a light plane and helicopter to observe the reef from above, followed by teams of scuba divers who were able to check the condition of more than 900 individual reefs, spread over 2,300 km (1,429 miles). This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon — in 2002 and 1998, the reef also experienced mass bleaching events and was able to recover.

However, in those cases, about 40 percent of the reef was unaffected, far higher than the 7 percent that remains healthy now. At the moment, scientists expect about half of the affected coral to die, and those that survive may need decades to recover. There is no evidence of this sort of disaster occurring before the late twentieth century, so it’s very difficult to say what the long-term outlook for the coral might be.

Why Chances for the Reef’s Recovery Are Slim

Bleached coral is not necessarily dead, and can recover if conditions shift to become more favorable to the marine creatures, but prolonged stress can cause the condition to become irreversible. Corals rely on a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae algae, which helps the small organisms by producing oxygen, removing the creature’s waste products, and supplying the organic products of photosynthesis as a source of food. Without the algae, the corals become more vulnerable to disease and lose their major source of nutrients.

In this case, researchers believe the bleaching is due to warm ocean temperatures caused by global warming and this year’s El Nińo phenomenon. If action isn’t taken soon to stop global warming, experts warn that the Great Barrier Reef may be unable to bounce back. Previous bleaching events have already caused troubling changes to the mix of coral species present in the reef. Scientists estimate half of the coral has already perished since 1981.

The Australian government recently committed $2 billion dollars over the next decade to protect the Great Barrier Reef by improving water quality and removing invasive species which threaten the coral, but unless the nation takes drastic action to curb climate change, it’s unlikely to make a difference long-term.

Australia’s Government Already Under Fire for Its Approach to Climate Research

Unfortunately, the government’s current approach to fighting climate change is less than promising. In February, the country’s federal science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), fired 110 of its 140 atmosphere and ocean scientists and 120 specialists from its land and water program. Another 350 of the staff who previously worked on climate research have been moved into new roles completely unrelated to their specialty.

Not only is this a devastating blow to Australia’s research community, it’s effectively wiped out the largest and most advanced climate change program in the world’s southern hemisphere. This follows a 2014 decision by the government to cut the agency’s budget by $111 million and eliminate nearly 1,000 positions.

Not only is Australia eliminating most of its climate research, but the government has been criticized for failing to set strong emissions targets, despite the fact that a 2011 study showed that Australia is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide per capita, and the fifteenth highest overall polluter in the world. Unless Australia changes course soon, and puts pressure on other heavy polluters to do the same, it’s unlikely the money it’s invested in protecting the reef will make a real difference on the fate of the coral.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

74 comments

Ruth S
Ruth Sabout a year ago

Thanks.

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Chrissie R
Chrissie Rabout a year ago

Thanks for posting.

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Danuta W
Danuta Wabout a year ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Victoria C.
Victoria C2 years ago

Let's work on saving what we have left!!

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Kelly S.
Kelly X3 years ago

We must do everything in our power to save this reef!

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Christina W.
Christina H3 years ago

NO!!!! THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Marija Mohoric
Marija M3 years ago

tks

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Marie W.
Marie W3 years ago

Koch brothers bought Australia?

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Veronica Danie
.3 years ago

Thank You!

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