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  • Is the Great Barrier Reef on the Mend?

Is the Great Barrier Reef on the Mend?

Dec 27 2018 Read 821 Times

After the health of the Great Barrier Reef was decimated by the coral bleaching events of 2016 and 2017, there is finally some positive news on the topic. An update on the reef's condition, conducted by the Australian not-for-profit organisation Reef and Rainforest Research Centre (RRRC), has revealed that sections of the reef have demonstrated "substantial signs of recovery".

The upturn in the reef's current fortunes is thought to have been precipitated by a particularly mild summer in 2017 and 2018, along with significant efforts on the part of municipal, government and industrial bodies. However, the authors of the report warn that the health of the reef is still highly contingent on climatic conditions and that another unseasonable summer could have disastrous consequences for its long-term health once again.

A natural wonder

One of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef is the biggest living organism on planet Earth and its 1,430-mile length provides a habitat for one third of the world’s soft coral population. However, over recent years, manmade climate change has had a catastrophic impact on the reef, with 50% of it reported as "dead or dying" and a massive 93% already bleached in 2016.

Coral bleaching is brought on by higher temperatures in the water surrounding the reef. When this happens, the coral becomes stressed and expels the tiny algae (known as zooxanthellae) living on its surface. When these algae leave the coral, it turns white as the bleaching process takes effect. While corals can recover from bleaching, the phenomenon can have serious impacts on the reef's ability to fight off disease and thus make it more likely to die.

Coral bleaching has certainly been the biggest danger to the Great Barrier Reef in recent years, but its status as a premier tourist attraction also leaves it susceptible to human harm in other ways. For example, the increased footfall in and around the reef increases the likelihood that micropollutants and contaminants of emerging concern can disturb the habitat, while noise pollution and oil spills from increased boat traffic also endanger this natural wonder.

Cause for cautious optimism

The flipside of that increased human presence is the revenue generated by the tourism. Fees charged to visitors help swell the coffers of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which is the government agency for researching and implementing new laws and technologies to keep the reef healthy and sustainable.

Work undertaken by the Reef Restoration Foundation (RRF) has already shown encouraging signs, as their world-first ocean-based coral nursery scheme has seen 90% of their corals increase in size by two-and-a-half times in the first six months of operation. From the initial crop of 24 coral pieces, there are now 222 new coral fragments and the first batch of 100 of these will be attached to damaged coral on the Great Barrier Reef in an attempt to instigate growth.

While the authors of the report were encouraged about how well parts of the Reef were recovering, they also warned against complacency and stressed the need to address the root causes of climate change, such as greenhouse gas emissions and the transition to environmentally-friendly road transportation. “Increasing temperatures experienced around the world from climate change means that the pressure on the Great Barrier Reef is going to continue into the future,” explained Sheriden Morris, managing director of the RRRC. “In addition to government and community actions to reduce carbon emissions and improve the quality of water running into the GBR, managers and operators on the Great Barrier Reef will need to do all they can to protect and support their individual sites.” 

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