Act Now on Climate Change

The Fading of Great Barrier Reef: The World’s Largest Living Creature in Danger

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Being one of seven natural wonders of the world, The Great Barrier Reef–an ecosystem where thousands of corals and reefs exist and form a broad structure, located in the ocean of Queensland, Australia–has been listed as World Heritage since 1981. Extraordinary as its name implies, the ecosystem that supports thousands of marine life is also remarked as the world’s largest living structure. If you’re curious enough to see it as a whole, the gigantic Great Barrier Reef can even be seen from space! Even so, as climate change issues arise, the world heritage site has been suffering from gradual destruction. But, before anything else, it’d be best if we get to know what’s inside the Great Barrier Reef first.

It is reported that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is more than 348,000 kilometers wide, consisting of 980 individual islands, intertidal and internal waters, also state waters within the area. While it provides the home for 3000 reefs and 300 coral cays with more than 600 types, the depth around the outer zone is estimated at 2000 meters underwater. The abundance of corals and reefs also supports other marine life around the inshore as well as deeper ocean regions, such as sea plants and animals.

For plants, it is very common to find seagrass, algae, and sponge gardens as plenty of sea creatures rely on plants for food. Plants also become the main source of oxygen, not only for the underwater supply but also for the majority of oxygen stock that is dispersed in the air and breathed in by living creatures in lands. On top of that, you can also find 150 mangrove islands that are as important as coral reefs in suppressing tidal waves friction that to a certain extent might be destructive for lands. Moreover, the Great Barrier Reef also accommodates 25% of marine species that the world has known, specifically 1625 species of fish, 215 species of birds, 133 sharks and rays varieties, 30 species of dolphins and whales, 14 species of sea snakes, and 85% of the world’s known turtle species.

Besides being enabled as a nice recreational area for tourism that earns relatively high economic value for Australia, the Great Barrier Reef has also become a natural treasure for scientific discoveries related to ocean life. Marine creatures are the main contributors that underlie various researches and inventions. Considering how rich and prosperous the ecosystem is, the Great Barrier Reef plays a very important role in sustaining the life of the earth’s marine stability. Unfortunately, the majority of this fascinating world heritage has been adversely harmed for the past 33 years or further. The main cause of the damage is undoubtedly easy to guess, climate change.

In 2017, investigations found that ⅔ of corals in the Great Barrier Reef had faded away. The corals were normally colorful and surrounded by animals, especially the smaller ones. But, during the last three decades, climate change, cyclones, water acidification, and pollution which results in habitat loss, have impacted the life of corals and reefs so that their natural colors bleached.

How Do Corals and Reefs Bleach?

Source: Manny Moreno | Unsplash

Through scientific studies, we learned that corals and reefs get their colors from living algae (zooxanthellae). Along with the increasing ocean temperature, even if it’s just 1 °C, Zooxanthellae would have difficulties retaining their color pigment, not to mention surviving through it. The effect should be mutilating because as some of you might have known, the sea absorbs 93% of the earth’s heat. With no such algae surrounding the corals and reefs, all you can see now are just white, porous, starving bodies underwater with nothing around it. Furthermore, the affected corals and reefs 8000 kilometers wide also led to many sea creatures’ loss as their habitat is in danger.

Although it has been very well-known that nature has its own capability to retain equilibrium, corals and reefs can’t just recover in one night. They should be given decades of restoration and optimal environmental setup to remain alive. This setup includes protection, isolation, cooldown, stabilization, field treatment, and the use of planted heat-resistant algae around the damaged corals and reefs. In this way, the corals and reefs might be able to adapt through climate change though it won’t be instant. Luckily, the Australian government had paid intensive attention to this matter. For now, it is safe to say that the world heritage is in good hands.

However, it is important to highlight that the Great Barrier Reef’s decay is just one out of many similar cases. Around the oceans, climate change has affected many species’ lives, and soon or later, the impact–which is mostly caused by humans–is going to reach back to us. Fortunately, protection and recovery projects have been implemented in some places, and there are more ongoing plans on how to preserve other endangered corals and reefs around the world. Yet, it is difficult to say if the attempts would work as expected while the predictor of the damage comes from numerous factors involving many parties.

But, of course, there’s always a way to help! As for non-scientists like us, what would really benefit the life of the sea ecosystem is to try reducing carbon from greenhouse emissions, avoiding throwing garbage into the water, and also spreading awareness related to climate change and reef recovery to people around us.

After all, water is the soul of the earth, a key to all lives. Now, it’s time for us to give back to where we started.

This blog series is part of Act Global Project called Act Now on Climate Change. We will be portraying how climate change is affecting us and what is need to do to prevent it from worsening.  Act Now!

Written by: Sekar Arumsari Subagia

  1. BBC. (2017, April 10). Dua-pertiga terumbu karang Great Barrier Reef rusak akibat ‘pemutihan’.
  2. Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Climate Change Statement.
  3. Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Facts.
  4. Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Reef Recovery 2030.