Great Barrier Reef: Not Dead Yet

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Corey Kowalczyke is a freshman English major.

corey_headshotOutside, a magazine news source for travel, sport and the environment, recently published the article “Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 Million BC-2016),” mourning the death of one of Earth’s most prized ecosystems. The Great Barrier Reef, located off the coast of Queensland in northeastern Australia, is spread across 132,974 square miles. Over 2,900 individual reefs and thousands of islands and atolls make the Great Barrier Reef a unique place of rich biodiversity.

Many who read this article were taken aback, causing much grief and outrage on social media, especially on Twitter, with the hashtag #GreatBarrierReef trending last week. Those who were even more shocked were the environmental scientists and researchers who have been working extensively on the Great Barrier Reef in hopes of developing solutions to save the remaining parts.

But the Great Barrier Reef is not dead yet. According to the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef is affected by “bleaching.” Bleaching occurs when coral are subjected to unusual conditions such as rise in water temperature and ocean acidification. Corals in the reef contain algae, which make nutrients for the coral. When outside influences on the coral change–such as rise in sea temperature–the algae will produce too much oxygen and stress the coral. Subsequently, the coral will expel its algae in order to survive, thus causing it to drain its color and turn white. When the coral has no algae, it will starve and eventually die within months. Mass bleaching of the corals within the Great Barrier Reef has become a widespread catastrophe in recent decades, and has shown us the true effects of our human impact on the environment. However, as Outside notes, “If water temperatures soon return to normal, the corals can recruit new algae and recover…” It is imperative to know that action can still be sought in order to reverse some of the tragic effects of bleaching on the reef. A second major cause of the Great Barrier Reef’s destruction is ocean acidification which is caused by increased uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Since there are more cars on the road, and more machinery emitting carbon dioxide in the air, this has been a huge factor in the rise of acidity in our oceans.

The recent article published by Outside concerns many environmental scientists, researchers and experts because they worry that people may take the article published at face value, and consequently believe that there is nothing people can do to help save the reef. Many who work with the reefs are attempting to spread awareness of the emergency that is happening. The ultimate cause of the Great Barrier Reef’s potential demise is climate change and human impact.

We know that climate change takes many forms, and we also know the negative ways in which humans impact the world around us. Mining and fishing have been taking place within the barrier reef for decades, and as noted in Outside Magazine, Australia nearly leased out the whole reef for oil and mining purposes in the 1960’s. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, seawater temperatures around the reef have increased by 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century. This may not seem like a drastic increase, but researchers predict that at the current rate of increase in sea temperature, the Great Barrier Reef will see mass bleachings every year by 2050.

Outside’s obituary on the Great Barrier Reef was not intended to be taken literally. Instead, its purpose was to emphasize the dire distress that the reef is in and to make people aware that one of the seven natural wonders of the world is at a very great risk of disappearing in this century if something does not change.

As USF students, it isn’t possible for everyone to visit the Great Barrier Reef and join the environmentalists, ecologists and researchers on groundbreaking ecological restoration and research on the reef. However, we can take into perspective the minor things that we do during our day that could have an impact on our environment. If that means using reusable water bottles, riding the bus or composting, we are acknowledging that we are aware of the environmental issues that we face, and that we are proactive in doing something about it.


Header Photo Credit: Nick Hobgood

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