Updated: Oct 15, 2021
The Great Barrier Reef is a natural wonder, a trove of biodiversity that 9,000 species call home. 134, 634 square miles long and located just off the coast of Queensland, the reef rakes in billions of dollars every year for Australia’s economy through tourism and fishing profits. However, the reef is in danger. What was once thought to be invincible because of its sheer size is currently suffering from irreversible damage. Climate change, pollution, and coastal development have taken a toll, with obstinate political denial and insufficient action further exacerbating the ecosystem’s deterioration and making the Great Barrier Reef a clear example of what ignoring science can do to the natural world.
Components of the Great Barrier Reef
To better understand what is happening to the Great Barrier Reef, it is first necessary to understand the fragile relationships that make up the reef. The first type of theoretical block is the coral itself, which is actually made up of thousands of tiny polyps that form a limestone structure with their hard exoskeletons. Living symbiotically with the coral are photosynthetic algae that provide a source of food and filter for the coral, with the coral producing chemicals that protect the algae from excessive sun exposure. Algae and coral together make up about 3,000 individual reefs of coral, home to the final, and most diverse block of the Great Barrier Reef —the animals. The inhabitants of the reef include clownfish, manta rays, green turtles, mantis shrimp, humpback whales, triton, giant clams, and blanket octopuses flitting in and out of the coral.
Dangers to the Great Barrier Reef
The primary danger to the Great Barrier Reef are rising temperatures. The reef is very sensitive to temperature changes, and can only tolerate a two or three degrees Fahrenheit difference from its optimal temperature range. Warmer temperatures are dangerous to the coral because they cause the algae to produce toxic chemicals, making the coral expel the algae in a deadly process called bleaching. Bleaching turns the coral white, a stark contrast to the colorful array of corals and animals that symbolize a thriving reef.
As a result of increased greenhouse gas emissions, oceans are warming up 40% faster than estimates from six years ago, with oceans absorbing 93% of the increased heat in the atmosphere. Coupled with record-high oceanic temperatures, the coral death toll is becoming increasingly visible, with whole lengths of bleached white coral visible in thousands of aerial and water photos.
In 2019 and 2020, the Great Barrier Reef temperatures reached record highs, peaking at more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit above average, logging another mass bleaching event. It was the 5th mass bleaching event since 1998, an unprecedented occurrence. Half of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral has died as a result, with almost every type of coral declining both in quantity and quality. Consequently, this has significantly lowered the breeding capacity of the coral as the number of adult and young corals have both been diminished.
The damage to the reef has had severe humanitarian and economic impacts, as well. The Great Barrier Reef is home to fish that feed close to one billion people on the planet. Unfortunately, these fish depend on weaker corals; the structure makes the corals more likely to bleach and die. In addition, the reef attracts over 1.6 million visitors every year, contributing more than six billion dollars each year to the Australian economy. There has been a direct correlation between the decline in reef health and the decline in reef tourism.
Restorative Action Being Taken to Protect the Great Barrier Reef
Although the Australian government has laid out theoretical plans of action to limit the effects of climate change such as the Paris Agreement and Reef 2050, there is yet to be an effective implementation. This is due to divided attitudes towards climate change, with the increasingly outraged public clamoring for action, and the government decrying climate change. The recent number of natural disasters that have ravaged the Australian public have led to an increased number of citizens (81%) believing that climate change will result in more droughts and flooding. In addition, more than half of Australians agree that the government should plan for an orderly phaseout of their reliance on coal.
However, the public’s demands for productive action against climate change have been labeled “indulgent and selfish” by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, defending the current $2.3 billion investment in reef protection as enough. Scientists strongly disagree, stating that nothing will be enough until the world stops using coal-burning as a main source of energy. Contrary to scientific suggestion, the Australian administration “loves coal” and has fallen behind on its promise to reduce emissions — effectively ignoring the Paris Agreement.
In their unsuccessful efforts to satisfy the public, political parties seem to be trying to play both sides of the climate “game.” Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter but is also a major exporter of natural gas. Political parties, even the opposition center-left Labor Party, are simultaneously pushing for emissions cuts while continuing to support more coal mining. This attempted duality is rendering politics useless in the fight against climate change and even puts the Australian economy 93rd in the world by the rank of complexity. Australian politics don’t seem to register scientists’ persistent message: there is more to be done to address this clear climate emergency [damage to the reef] in a continuously decreasing amount of time.
The Great Barrier Reef is a natural gem that the whole world should acknowledge and treasure properly, as it is our responsibility as humans to leave Mother Earth as we found it. Coupled with increased energy production, accelerating technological advancement has led to increasing atmospheric temperatures that the ocean is forced to absorb. The living things in the ocean have had to pay for the temperature increase with their lives. Human pursuits in the form of coastal development, politics, and ignorance of science should not come at the cost of other animals’ lives. The public needs to take immediate action in order to preserve coral reefs like the Great Barrier Reef and stay vigilant in the fight against climate change.