For years, the Great Barrier Reef has been one of the most resilient tourist attractions in the world. Located off the coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system, a beautiful network of corals and the schools of fish who call them home.
If you’ve ever visited the Great Barrier Reef for a scuba diving session, or seen the remarkable natural wonder from the air on an Australia-bound plane, you know how gorgeous it looks and how difficult it is for most Australians – and most people with any thought toward marine life – to imagine what the world would be like without it.
However, scientists are warning that, by 2050, a world without the Great Barrier Reef may become a reality. Climate change and global warming are terms that have been thrown around a lot over the past few decades, but in our minds, we don’t think about climate fluctuations having a substantial impact on underwater coral. We hear stories about the polar ice caps beginning to melt, and of fish populations in Alaska and elsewhere which have begun to dwindle and disappear as a result of climate changes.
But the waters in and around Australia are too warm as well, and scientists say that higher-than-usual temperatures for long enough periods of time result in a process called “coral bleaching.”
What is coral bleaching, exactly? In the simplest of terms, it is exactly what it sounds like: coral losing the vibrant colors that have long defined their iconography. On a more technical, scientific level, coral bleaching is what happens when pieces of coral are so stressed by over-warm water that they begin to expel certain algae species that live within them. These algae share a symbiotic relationship with the coral, so when they are expelled, it’s bad news for both parties.
Read about some other underwater troubles in Florida’s Biscayne Bay.
On one hand, the algae lose their homes. On another, the corals lose access to the nutrients that allow them to be healthy. Slowly, the corals then begin to lose their color and expose their calcium skeletons. If the water cools back down, the algae can return and the coral can recover. However, long enough warming trends can lead to permanent damage or death for the corals, and have begun to take a huge toll on reef systems around the world – most notably the Great Barrier Reef.
The problems for the Great Barrier Reef aren’t confined to bleaching, either. Rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are also leading to the acidification of ocean pH levels, and that acidity takes its own kind of wrecking ball to coral species.
Add to that the recent news, reported by The Guardian earlier this month, that a coal outfit will be dredging an export terminal, and the Great Barrier Reef’s days as a world wonder may very well be numbered.
Regardless of which cause of death is most prevalent – and there are others, including coral-eating fish – it appears that the Great Barrier Reef is indeed dying. However, while scientists have watched the reef decline over the past three decades or so, and while some project that the reef could be entirely gone by 2050, others wonder whether or not this decline is merely part of a cyclical trend.
After all, coral reefs have been around for millions of years, through ice ages and warming periods, and they have endured until now. With that in mind, climate changes might not actually be the prime culprit. But scientists need to do more research before any effective recovery method can be outlined.