93 Percent Of The Great Barrier Reef Is Nearly Dead Because Of Climate Change

In the book, The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s are OneMarine Biologist Sylvia Earle wrote:

“Even if you never have the chance to see or touch the ocean, the ocean touches you with every breath you take, every drop of water you drink, every bite you consume… Everyone, everywhere is inextricably connected to and utterly dependent upon the existence of the sea.”

A report released this week discovered roughly 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the largest living structure on Earth, has been damaged due to coral bleaching.

“We’ve never seen anything like this scale of bleaching before,” said Professor Terry Hughes in a press release. Professor Hughes is Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, and leader of the National Coral Bleaching Task Force which produced the report. “In the northern Great Barrier Reef, it’s like 10 cyclones have come ashore all at once.”

The task force evaluated 911 coral reefs by air around Australia, and found 93 percent were suffering from coral bleaching to some extent. The bleaching was found to be worse in the northern sector of the reef, where no coral has escaped its impact. Based on diving surveys, the researchers say they have seen nearly 50 percent coral death so far.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the United States Department of Commerce, increased ocean temperatures caused by climate change are the leading cause of coral bleaching. Coral depends on algae to survive, which is very sensitive to temperature changes. If warm temperatures remain constant for a long period of time, the coral dispels the algae, leaving it colored white, and eventually leading to the death of the coral if the stresses are prolonged. In 2005, the United States lost half its coral reefs in the Caribbean Sea due to a massive bleaching event. High carbon emissions absorbed by the ocean also decrease Ph levels, leading to ocean acidification. Observation stations monitored by the US EPA in Hawaii, Bermuda, and the Canary Islands found that in the past two decades, carbon dioxide levels in the oceans have increased, directly resulting in the acidification. These changes also put stresses on marine life, diminishing the quality of their habitats and depleting food sources. If emissions aren’t reduced soon, the negative effects already being seen in these environments will be irreversible.  The bleaching doesn’t necessarily mean the coral is dead, but the greater the stressors causing coral bleaching, the less likely the coral is able to recover.  It can take thousands of years for coral reefs to fully form, so once the coral dies, those ecosystems are unlikely to ever recover.

“This is, by far, the worst bleaching they’ve seen on the Great Barrier Reef,” Mark Eakin, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch, in an interview with the Washington Post. “Our climate model-based Four Month Bleaching Outlook was predicting that severe bleaching was likely for the [Great Barrier Reef] back in December. Unfortunately, we were right and much of the reef has bleached, especially in the north.”

Today on Earth Day, it is important to acknowledge and fully comprehend how dire the situation of our world’s ecosystems are because of climate change. There is no time for incremental efforts. We must either make the necessary changes to mitigate the effects of climate change in the future now, or pay dearly for the consequences which will manifest exponentially in the near future. We can no longer treat our Earth as a source of infinite economic development when the resources on it are finite.

Featured Image Courtesy of Flickr