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The Great Barrier Reef Is Being Bleached To Death

A new aerial survey shows the Seventh Wonder of the World is in peril

The Great Barrier Reef Is Being Bleached To Death

A demonstration of coral bleaching. Photo courtesy of Popular Science

An expansive aerial survey of the Australian coastline has just revealed that 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef is suffering from bleaching—a severe environmental catastrophe tantamount to mass coral death—and the scientists who worked on the research are not hiding their dismay.


The survey was conducted by the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, and the director of the center, professor Terry Hughes, posted a heartbreaking tweet about the findings that ended with, “And then we wept,” and that comes in addition to terrifying remarks he made in a press release about the survey results, “We’ve never seen anything like this scale of bleaching before. In the northern Great Barrier Reef, it’s like 10 cyclones have come ashore all at once.”

Alongside Hughes, dozens more scientists signed a full page ad that appeared in Queensland, Australia’s biggest paper, the Courier Mail, with screaming display text that read, “CLIMATE CHANGE IS DESTROYING OUR REEFS.” And the tone of the rest of the ad is just as dire, saying “As you read this, a catastrophe is unfolding. The reef is currently experiencing the worst mass coral bleaching event in its history,” adding that, “Vast swathes of once-colorful reef are now deathly white.”

The public service announcement was as much for the media as it was for citizens, as the scientific community wanted to pull attention to an issue that’s been largely ignored by the major paper. “In fact there was a front-page story that said the coral bleaching event had been wildly exaggerated,” Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, told the Guardian.

Coral bleaching occurs when water temperatures spike higher than normal for an extended period of time. There have been three global bleaching crises ever—they’ve all occurred since 1998. Global warming is being pegged as the culprit here, compounded by El Niño and UV radiation from the sun. Within the text of the ad, the use of coal, oil and gas are all credited with damaging the reef thanks to their role in creating greenhouse gasses, and the scientists are beseeching the acceleration green energy programs.

The longer the bleaching, the more likely the coral will die. Hughes, who is also a professor at James Cook University specializing in the ecology of reefs, says northern portions of the Great Barrier are already seeing 50 percent mortality, with some portions possibly hitting 90 percent soon. The urgency of the matter is not in question, but the media response is.

But at least the Queensland government is stepping up. Environment minister Steven Miles is calling for an immediate meeting with Australia’s federal environment minister, Greg Hunt, and says that Hunt has, “been downplaying the seriousness of the coral bleaching because he knows the major cause is global warming and we still haven’t seen any meaningful climate change policy from the federal level,” Miles told the Guardian.

Of course, simply getting the word out in Queensland’s newspaper will not be enough to turn the tides. And much like every other climate-related calamity, improving the health of the Great Barrier Reef will require a concerted—and immediate—global effort to stem further damage. The good news is that today in New York City, more than 165 countries are signing the landmark Paris Agreement climate pact, which essentially functions as a global commitment to keeping Earth’s temperature from increasing by more than 2 degrees celsius. Ideally, the pact would result in a raise of less than 1.5 degrees, but the unfortunate truth is that science doesn’t support that aspiration.

But it’s not nothing, and if the Paris Agreement can serve as a starting point for a planet-wide commitment to more responsibly managing Earth’s resoures, then maybe the Great Barrier Reef stands a chance at thriving again.

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