Great Barrier Reef In Trouble: Is Human-Caused Climate Change To Blame?

2016 was a very harsh year for eastern Australia's most notable natural wonder. The Great Barrier Reef has never been so unhealthy, and many speculate about whether the 2,300 kilometer coral formation can survive a whole lot longer.

Dr. Russell Reichelt is CEO and spokesman of the The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. In October, he explained that a process called "bleaching" caused the Reef to suffer a 22 percent coral mortality rate over the course of nine months in 2016 and that most of the bleaching occurred along the northern third of the Reef, where sea surface temperatures are higher than they've ever been. This sounds bad (and it is) but it's even worse than that. When factored in with previous coral losses, the northern portion of Great Barrier Reef which extends some 700km from Port Douglas, Queensland to Papua New Guinea is now roughly two-thirds dead. Dr. Reichelt told The Great Barrier Reef Foundation that the most stressed parts of the Reef are in shallow water.

"I am deeply concerned about the impacts of the mass coral bleaching event which is affecting coral reefs throughout the world, including the Great Barrier Reef."
Professor Terry Hughes from Queensland's James Cook University, along with research assistants Britta Shaffelke of the Australian Institute of Marine Science and James Kerry from the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, conduct cyclical studies of the Great Barrier Reef. In The Conversation, they explained that from 1985 to 2012, the GBR suffered a gradual 51 percent loss of living coral. During that time frame, the pristine northernmost sections of the Reef were spared. This year, most of the bleaching damage occurred in precisely that remote part of the Great Barrier Reef.
According to Professor Hughes' 2016 study, the central portion of the GBR which suffered similar coral die-offs in 1998 and 2002 suffered moderate albeit widespread bleaching in 2016. Concurrently, the southern sections suffered relatively slight bleaching and remain almost unchanged. What makes the difference? Why are some parts of the Great Barrier Reef dying while other parts continue to thrive? If marine biologists are correct, recent coral devastation of the northernmost reef can be blamed at least in part on global climate change.

What is killing the GBR?

According to experts at the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, rapid, human-induced climate change is the most critical cause of coral collapse due to increased temperature and acidity of seawater, rising ocean levels, and heightened frequency of catastrophic weather events. All of these things play a big part in reef ruination, but they're not the only thing with the potential to wipe out the GBR and other coral reefs around the world. Poaching in protected waters is a problem, and so is agricultural runoff. If left unchecked, coastal development may lead to reef ruination, as well.

Is there hope for the Great Barrier Reef?

There are no two ways about it. The die-off of GBR coral in shallow water is beyond alarming. Fortunately, corals in deeper water have thus far survived and may eventually help to rebuild the damaged reef. If human-influenced destruction ceases, coral reefs that are in peril around the globe may survive after all.

According to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, reef resilience is Queensland's number one priority. The Australian government is aboard, as well, implementing projects that include reducing agricultural runoff to improve water quality around the Reef and surveillance to monitor and control the coral-chomping crown-of-thorns starfish. Eradication of illegal "hotspot" fishing is also part of Australia's local and national government plan to spare the Great Barrier Reef.

Inquisitr readers who wish to remain apprised of current conditions of the GBR or who would like to make a monetary donation to the preservation of the Reef are invited to visit the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

[Featured Image by Steve Prutz|Wikimedia Commons| CC BY 3.0]