THE GREAT BARRIER REEF IS BLEACHED TO DEATH
The world’s largest coral reef system is dying. But can it be saved?
Words: Aleksandra Georgieva
Photography: Israel Gil, Francesco Ungaro
00 April 2021
The vivid corals in Australia’s natural wonder attract over two million visitors each year. The skyrocketing tourism figures generate the country around A$6bn (£3.3bn) a year, creating 70,000 jobs. Yet, the reef is dying. In fact, half of it is already dead.
Skeletons of branches are tangled at the sea floor where once used to be a rare technicolour of corals, creating one of the most fascinating ecosystems on Earth. Corals share a symbiotic relationship with single-cell algae, known as zooxanthella, which acts as sunscreen absorbing UV rays. The zooxanthella also uses photosynthesis to nourish corals with carbohydrates. Yet, that relationship weakens when corals become too stressed and poisoning begins to take over.
Coral bleaching is caused when the waters they live in become too hot. Temperatures fluctuation, largely caused by global warming, takes away the colours of corals, leaving them white – hence the term. Belching doesn’t only take away the colour but with time, it kills corals. Today over 90 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef has been affected by bleaching. Most major reef regions face similar fate, including the Caribbean, Hawaii, Florida, the Red Sea and Japan's Ryukyu Islands. While coral colonies cover only 0.1 per cent of the ocean floor, they harbour an entire quarter of all marine species.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) we have been aware that the intensity and frequency of coral reef bleaching has been increasing since the early 1980s. According to NOAA’s Mark Eakin “global-scale events in 1998 and the ongoing 2014-16 event show global warming is increasing the damage to corals." While devastating damage to global reef systems is already taking place, we must remember there is still something we can do about it. As long as we don’t think of the issue as too big to tackle, we could still help prevent absolute losses.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority advises tourists to reconsider their plans of visiting the Great Barrier Reef for several reasons. While tourism may employ thousands of locals, who rely on travellers for their livelihood, there are various sustainable ways to travel that visitors should consider. For once, reaching Queensland is usually a long journey for the majority of tourists. Long flights create emissions that affect many aspects of life, including marine ecosystems like the ones in the reef.
THIS IS HOW YOU CAN HELP:
If you are planning a visit to the Great Barrier Reef, you must know that seeing it is an important part of inspiring people to engage with its future. However, you may want to consider how you could limit your environmental impact.
Seek out ethical airline companies, best found through a certified operator such as Ecotourism Australia. Many companies offer various ways to contribute to the reef such as travelling on a low-emission boat with a marine biologist on board to explain both the wonders and the prospects of the world’s largest coral reef system. Such company is Responsible Travel, which is UK-based and organises several reef trips throughout the year.
Any damage to coral reefs is a devastating loss to all marine ecosystems on the planet. There are many ways to limit our environmental footprint on daily basis. Perhaps the most important act we could embrace as individuals, is to ditch fossil fuels – one of the biggest contributors to global warming and consequently to coral bleaching as well. Coral reefs around the world are delicate ecosystems that require a balance of clear waters to survive. If planning on flying, try to offset your carbon emissions. Worldwide prevention of overfishing and pollution is also essential for saving not only the Great Barrier Reef but all coral reefs across the globe from dying completely.