Obituary

Is The Great Barrier Reef Dead? ‘Obituary’ Suggests The World’s Largest Coral Reef Has Died

The Great Barrier Reef is dead, according to an “obituary” published by environmental journalist Rowan Jacobsen. In the article, Jacobson blames “catastrophic bleaching,” which is caused by increases in the ocean’s acidity and average temperature. Although the Australian and Queensland governments have declared “good progress has been made” in efforts to protect the reef, some environmentalists believe it is simply too late.

GreatBerrierReef.org reports the system of coral reefs was likely known to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who populated the area for an estimated 40,000 years. However, the Great Barrier Reef was first documented by European explorers in June 1768.

Two years later, Captain James Cook sailed the Endeavour along the entire length of the majestic reef in search of a passage to the open sea. During the expedition, Cook, along with several botanists and illustrators, documented the vast extent of the Great Barrier Reef.

Cook’s documentation of the reef’s existence gained worldwide attention and inspired a number of scientists to travel to the site for further exploration. However, an accurate and detailed charting of the Great Barrier Reef was not performed until 1819.

The Great Barrier Reef remains the largest coral reef system in the world. With more than 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands, the system is more than 1600 miles long and is visible from outer space.

Scientists have determined the reef is populated by more than 1,500 species of fish, 330 species of ascidians, 215 species of birds, 30 species of dolphins, porpoises, and whales, 17 species of sea snakes, and six species of sea turtles.

The Great Barrier Reef is also a popular tourist destination, which draws an estimated 2 million visitors and generates an estimated AU$5 billion every year.

Unfortunately, the majestic reef is being threatened by pollution and climate change.

According to reports, more than 50 percent of the Great Barrier Reef was harmed during the 1998, 2002, and 2006 mass coral bleaching events.

Coral reefs get their color from zooxanthellae algae, which live inside the body of a coral polyp. As reported by the National Ocean Service, coral polyps and zooxanthellae algae have a symbiotic relationship.

Essentially, the polyps provide the algae with carbon dioxide and water necessary for photosynthesis. In turn, the algae provide the coral polyps with lipids, oxygen, and sugars necessary for cellular respiration and growth.

In a stable environment, the coral polyps and zooxanthellae algae maintain their mutually beneficial relationship and both organisms thrive. Unfortunately, stress caused by changes in water temperature or acidity can cause coral polyps to expel the algae.

The expulsion of the algae is called coral bleaching, as coral appears white after the algae leave the polyps. Although bleaching does not cause immediate death, coral is far more susceptible to disease and starvation if the algae do not return. They are also more susceptible to attacks by predators, including the Crown of Thorns starfish.

As the Great Barrier Reef has experienced three mass coral bleaching events, the Australian and Queensland governments joined efforts to devise a plan to protect the coral reef from further damage.

The Reef 2050 Plan includes legislation to prevent the disposal of dredge materials, programs to improve water quality, and comprehensive plans to manage coral predators in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage and Cairns areas.

According to a joint media release, dated September 28, 2016, the Australian and Queensland governments believe the Reef 2050 Plan is “showing good progress… towards protecting the Great Barrier Reef.”

Despite the optimism shared by the Australian and Queensland governments about preventing future damage to the reef, some environmentalists believe it is simply too late.

On October 11, environmental writer Rowan Jacobsen published an article titled “Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 Million BC-2016)” which suggests the reef is beyond repair.

In Jacobsen’s opinion, no “serious efforts” have been made to spare the world’s largest coral reef. The writer also suggested the Australian government has actively downplayed the issue to avoid a potentially negative impact on tourism.

It is unclear whether the Reef 2050 Plan will prevent the ultimate death of the Great Barrier Reef. However, recent studies suggest the damage caused by the mass bleaching events might be worse than originally believed.

In an interview with Independent, Macquarie University Professor Tim Flannery said he and several other biologists visited the region in September “to see how much repair there’d been, but the coral we saw bleached and in danger a few months back has now mostly died.” He is further concerned by evidence of new bleaching and damage caused by Crown of Thorns starfish.

In his opinion, if the Great Berrier Reef “was a person, it would be on life support.”

[Featured Image By stephan kerkhofs/Shutterstock]

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