Earlier this month, Outside ran an obituary proclaiming the death of Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef. The reef had just suffered the worst bleaching event in its history, with 93 percent of its corals going from their usual kaleidoscope of color to a chalky white, thanks to unusually warm water temperatures that make the coral ditch the symbiotic algae that gives them their characteristic color and doubles as a source of food.
While the obit was sensational and achieved its goal of trying to lasso in attention to the Great Barrier Reef, it wasn’t exactly true: Scientists insisted that, while things look dour at the moment, there’s still hope for returning that ecosystem to vibrant display of diversity that made it famous. Bleaching does not always result in death; algae will return to a coral if temperatures get back to normal fast enough.
But for many of these algae, the bleaching was fatal: According to the latest reports, more than half of the coral in the northern third of the reef is dead.
There’s still hope.
The Great Barrier Reef is often called the largest organism on the planet, but to think of it as a single living thing is both inaccurate and unproductive. Reefs are ecosystems, and ecosystems are resilient in a way that organisms are not — under favorable conditions, a coral reef can come back from the dead.
For all the hand-wringing, reefs can be surprisingly resilient in the face of major stress events. A major storm might roll through and tear up the place. A large amount of sediment could wash over the reef, smothering the coral. An invasion of crown-of-thorns starfish might set up shop and munch away at the coral until there’s almost nothing left. Saving the Great Barrier Reef — and all other reefs around the planet — is not about protecting the lives of individual coral; it’s about restoring the environment to conditions that promote coral health and coral growth.
“They can get hammered and yet come back within a year or two,” Robert Richmond, director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory in Hawaii, tells Inverse. Death is not a permanent condition if you’re a reef.
But if all the corals manage to move back in over the coming years, don’t be lulled into thinking everything is fine, either. Too many stressors can add up to something insurmountable, something that could dismantle and displace all the reef’s inhabitants — and even the structure of the reef itself — and that’s the path the planet is currently on.
The world’s coral reef cover is already in serious decline. By one estimate, 27 percent is already gone, and the majority of what’s left is severely threatened.
It sounds bad, but preservation and even recovery is entirely within our means. It will take attention and action, but coral reef scientists are optimistic that the current trajectory can be reversed.
We’re Killing the Great Barrier Reef. Only We Can Save It. – Inverse