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Mass Coral Bleaching in Great Barrier Reef

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Mass Bleachings Impact on the Great Barrier Reef

When you think of the color white, you associate that color with perfection, purity, and cleanliness. But for the Great Barrier Reef, white means death and destruction. The Great Barrier Reef is located of the coast of Australia covering more than 348,000 km2 of marine ecosystems which is about the size of Germany (Grech et al.). It was listed as The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area in 1981. The Reef not only supports many ecosystems and animals in the Coral Sea, but also revenues billions of dollars in tourism for Australia (Torr 42). Although its popularity for its many beautiful colors and ecosystems, it's in severe danger from industrial companies and climate change. Due to climate change, coral bleaching is causing the Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to die at an alarming rate because of coal emissions and exports, water quality, and Australia’s governments lack of funding towards protecting the Reef. If Australia’s government doesn’t act on these programs to protect the Reef, coral bleaching will destroy the marine ecosystem of the Coral Sea and one of Australia’s most popular tourist attraction.

Coral bleaching is very dangerous for the coral Reef and the damage caused from the bleaching is almost irreversible. With the increased greenhouse gases in our atmosphere causing climate change, coral bleaching will eventually completely kill the Reef and all the ecosystems depending on it. In order for coral reefs to form and survive, they need coral polyps and zooxanthellae algae. When the Reef formed millions of years ago, a coral polyp attached itself to the sea floor and started to spread out among that area (“Corals”). In order for the coral polyp to survive and grow, it needs the zooxanthellae algae to produce energy and food by forming sugar. The algae takes in sunlight and carbon dioxide to protect and produce the energy that is essential for the growth of coral (Lergessner 4). The coral without the algae is naturally white, but since the algae is living inside the coral, it gives the coral its wide range of colors (Lergessner 7). Because of climate change, the ocean temperature is increasing which stresses the algae forcing it to leave the coral. When the coral loses the algae, it loses the essential energy and food it needs to survive which turns the coral white making it more dangerous for the coral to survive (NOAA). This is known as coral bleaching. Although coral bleaching is very damaging, it’s been shown that some coral are able to recover if given enough time to heal. But if the conditions for the coral are too stressful for a long period of time before the algae can return, the coral will die (NOAA).

When temporary warming events happen and the continuing increase in climate change combine, the warming of ocean water around the Reef can be very catastrophic. When the 2016 El Niño event happened, it was the warmest year globally causing a mass bleaching to the Reef. David Kline, a scientist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, says that this was “...the longest bleaching event ever recorded…” (Worland) to the Reef. To measure just how much damage was caused to the Reef, Professor Terry Hughes, the director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, brought together a task force to study the bleaching damage. Hughes and his task force found that the about a third of the Reef was severely damaged. They also found that the bleaching occurred 30-40 meters deeper in the water, which is bad because the deepest they usually find bleaching is about 20 meters down. Hughes hypothesizes that the Great Barrier Reef will need about fifty years to recover from the 2016’s bleaching event, but because the global climate is warming every year, the severe bleaching events will continue making it impossible for the Reef to recover. According to Hughes findings based on the 2016 bleaching event, the Reef suffered irreversible damage. His findings not only explain the deadly damage already done by coral bleaching, but also depict a sad future for the Reef. If the 2017 El Niño event is worse than the 2016 and the climate change issues get worse, it will be nearly impossible to reverse the effects of bleaching causing us to lose a huge portion of the Reef. But are there any solutions Australia’s government is enforcing to help slow down the bleachings effect on the Reef? Or are they a part for causing this deadly problem?

One of the major threats to climate change, the ocean, and the Reef are coal emissions and exports. Australia is the largest exporter of coal and fourth largest producer of coal in the world (Grech). In December of 2015, the Australian government approved of expanding one of the world’s largest coal ports, Abbot Point. Before the government approved the port’s expansion, The Australian Coral Reef Society (ACRS), an organization of coral reef scientists concerned with the study and conservation of Australia’s coral reefs, published a report on the negative impacts the Abbot Point port will have on the Great Barrier Reef (Ward et al.). In their report, they claim that the port will increase the number of ships which increases the risk of the Reef getting hit. If the coral is hit by the ship, it not only breaks off, but can leave poisonous paint which makes the coral more prone to diseases which has a very low recovery rate (Ward et al.). With an increase in the number of ships exporting coal, the possibility of physical damage and spills is more likely to happen. If an accident does occur and likely will, it will cause even more damage to the Reef. A spill would also cause the coral to be more prone to diseases. The potential for accidents because of coal exports and increase in climate change are already extremely damaging to the Reef. But the emission of CO2 from the coal makes climate change worse, therefore making future bleaching events more deadly. In the article “Australia approves coal port near Great Barrier Reef” by John Zubrzycki, a researcher and reporter for the Christian Science Monitor in Australia, he states that, “The world’s oceans soak about half of the extra carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by human activities and the more carbon dioxide there is in the water, the harder it is for…” the reef and animals to survive (Zubrzycki).



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