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Australian natural icon Great Barrier Reef suffers another year of mass bleaching

Scientists have confirmed that, for the second year in a row, mass bleaching is taking place on the Great Barrier Reef.

According to a press release, a team of coral reef experts spent six hours flying over the Reef between Townsville and Cairns last week.

After conducting an aerial survey of the Reef, the team found severe bleaching in offshore reefs from north Ingham to Cairns.

Dr David Wachenfield, Marine Park Authority Director of Reef Recovery, said that coral can survive bleaching events, but that this bleaching highlights the importance of global action on climate change.

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest reef and “largest living structure”. Comprised of over 2900 reefs and 900 islands, the Reef stretches over 2,300 kilometres. It is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and is the host of a wide diversity of life.

Coral bleaching occurs due to above-average sea temperatures which cause a loss of endosymbiotic algae from coral. This algae is crucial to the survival of coral because it is responsible for food production via photosynthesis. When the water gets too warm, the algae can be expelled. This starves the coral, turning it white, and thus “bleaching” it.

Dr Neal Cantin from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) said that the occurrence of mass bleaching in consecutive years indicated that corals hadn’t had enough time to recover from last year’s rise in heat.

Last year, Outside magazine caused a stir when it prematurely pronounced The Great Barrier Reef dead. The response was immediate, with scientists declaring that while the Reef may be dying it is still quite a way from dead.

Outside was criticised for promoting a passive attitude, as heralding the “death” of the Reef implies that all hope is lost, and action is no longer needed.

So how bad is it?

A recent report by the Australian Climate Council labeled the Great Barrier Reef an “unfolding disaster”. According to the report, at present rates bleaching could be occurring every two years by the 2030s.

Aside from the massive loss of marine life, The Great Barrier Reef also presents economic concerns. The report estimated that the Reef contributed $5.7 billion to the Australian economy in 2011-12, supporting 69,000 jobs.

Consider the impact of the death of the world’s coral reefs. Since reefs are a vital part of the ocean food chain, that would be the end of the fishing industry, which employs about 260 million people worldwide. Many would face hunger, poverty and political instability.
And cancel that trip to the Bahamas because whole Caribbean Island nations might disappear.

Dr Wachenfield explained that it is vital that the world acts in accordance with the Paris Agreement in order to reduce global emissions. The Australian Climate Council reached the same conclusion, stating that we must limit global warming to well below 2 degrees in the short term and 1.5 in the long term.

It’s the usual story: if we don’t do something now, this won’t end well.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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