The Great Barrier Reef, located off the coast of Queensland, Australia, is the largest coral reef system in the world, consisting of over 2,900 reefs and 900 islands, and spans an astonishing 133,000 square miles (344,400 square kilometres). With such a vast scale, it’s one of the few landmarks – natural or human – visible from space. This vast network of coral also houses a countless multitude of species of fish and other sea creatures, making it a vital natural habitat.
As the largest structure in the world to be made up entirely by living organisms, it’s continual existence, survival, and preservation is vital for Australian, and global, eco-systems, as well as for the education of future generations, the experience of people across the planet, and for the Australian economy (to which it contributes about $56 billion a year)
However, with the rising danger posed by global warming, coral reefs the world over are being irreparably damaged by increasingly hot oceans – the Great Barrier Reef is no exception. The future of one of the seven natural wonders of the world is at risk, and the preservation of the reef has become a pressing issue for Australian politicians and campaigners, for obvious reasons.
As the world has increasingly warmed over the previous decades, one of the principle victims, thus far, has been the world’s seas and oceans, which have het up, become more acidic, and gotten deeper. This poses a dire threat to coral reef which are, after all, made up of living creatures, who can only survive and thrive under certain conditions. The world around reefs are changing faster than any adaptations can be developed, and, as such, coral is suffering. Bleaching – whereby reefs expel the algae that are key to the feeding of coral, which then loses colour and ceases being able to breathe, eventually dying – is a common phenomenon.
Further, global warming has meant that, as the ice caps have begun to melt, sea levels have been rising. This is yet another danger to the Great Barrier Reef. Since the reef is low-lying, land inundation, caused by the smallest increases in sea level, will cause irreversible changes in tidal habitats, such as saltwater intrusion into low-lying freshwater habitats.
And as the climate has changed, extreme weather events have become more common, with a growing number of tropical cyclones having a catastrophic effect on the Great Barrier Reef. Between 1995 and 2009, a whopping 34% of all recorded coral death was due to extreme weather events. And when the reef is severely damaged by storms, it can have a critical impact on local communities, due to lower catch rates for fishers, reduced tourism, and reduced access to some areas due to debris.
Climate factors aren’t the only threat to the Great Barrier Reef, however. Crown-of-thorns starfish, a large, multiple armed starfish, that preys on and feeds off coral, and has been blamed for 50% of reef deaths since 1985.
The picture is bleak for this stunning landmark of nature’s beauty. But all’s not lost. There is hope for the Great Barrier Reef, and there are people working hard and fighting everyday to save it, for the countless organisms that call it home, and for future generations.
Fight For Our Reef is an organisation that actively campaigns for the protection of the reef, and against actions and developments that threaten the Barrier Reef’s existence. They’ve recently opposed to the construction of a new coal mine by the company Adani, arguing that their track record shows they cannot be trusted to send ships through the coral reef, as well as the damage fossil fuels do the environment, which eventually seriously harms reef.
And scientists, too, have been conducting much research, trying to discover ways that the reef can still be saved. In a very recent development, “robust reefs” were discovered – areas of reef that could act as a source for the replenishment of the coral after storm damage. It’s hoped that these reefs will reduce the damage caused by climate factors, and are thought to have the ability to heal and resurrect damaged or dead reef. Robust reefs are also able to withstand attack by Crown-of-thorns starfish, and freak weather events.
However, scientists still warn that the only way to save the Great Barrier Reef will be to take serious action to halt, and reverse, climate change and global warming. This is a stark warning, with serious implications for the reef and campaigners, that the reef will not be safe as long as climate change continues.
There is still hope for the Great Barrier Reef, and there are those working hard to preserve it long in to the future. There is action that can be taken to save this majestic, natural landmark, but Australia’s politicians will need to get serious about protecting the reef from human forces, such as dangerous fishing practices, and commercial tankers, and natural dangers, such as Crown-of-thorns starfish.
Sam Butterworth is a writer and content manager who has worked for various print and online publications. He covers environmental and ecological topics whenever possible and can be found @sjtbutts.