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Bye-Bye, Great Barrier Reef

Submassive, tabulate and digittate corals growing on the reef slope. This reef is making a steady recovery from successive disturbance. A crown-of-thorns outbreak that ended in 2007 and category 4 cyclone Hamish that passed only 10km to the southeast of this reef in March 2009. 

Old dead corals and sand, the depressing results of past crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks.
Before and after on the Horseshoe Reef area of the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef – the largest and most iconic coral reef on the planet – has lost more than half its living coral in the last 27 years. And within the next 10 years it will lose half of what now remains.

That’s the finding of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), as corals everywhere continue to die from climate change.

The specific causes are warmer oceans, more acid in the water as CO2 gases in the atmosphere are absorbed into the ocean, more powerful hurricanes, and invasions from non-native sea life (in particular the crown-of-thorns starfish) that thrive in the new conditions.

Corals reefs, where more than half the fish in the oceans are birthed, are also being raided by people in the aquarium business. Video from AIMS shows the extent of some of the damage:

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

David Curnick of the Zoological Society of London told The Guardian the future of the Reef lies partly in human hands.

“We can achieve better water quality, we can tackle the challenge of crown-of-thorns, and we can continue to work to ensure the resilience of the reef to climate change is enhanced. However, its future also lies with the global response to reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

He added that what we’re seeing now is just the beginning of the damage that’s now unavoidable.

“The coral decline revealed by this study – shocking as it is – has happened before the most severe impacts of ocean warming and acidification associated with climate change have kicked in, so we undoubtedly have more challenges ahead.”


The McDonald Reef region before . . . and after:  (Photos by AIMS.)


Scientists say that the key to slowing the demise of the corals is to stop spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“International efforts to cap and reduce CO2 emissions are equally critical and must occur at the same time as cleaning up local impacts,” said Les Kaufman, a marine biologist at Boston University who says the corals can still be saved. “The problem is entirely soluble through concerted effort over this and the following two or three generations. There is absolutely no excuse for failure to do this, and if we do fail our generation will forever be remembered for unimaginable, unforgivable stupidity and sloth.”