If you ever watched Disney’s Finding Nemo, you have no doubt witnessed the beauty of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Sadly, the eye-catching beauty of this natural wonder is now in mortal danger as climate change decimates more than a quarter of its corals.
The internet was abuzz with news of the reef’s “death” after 25 million years of existence. Throughout its life, the reef has harbored 1,625 species of fish, 3,000 species of mollusk, 450 species of coral, 220 species of birds, and 30 species of whales and dolphins.
It was also home to the world’s largest populations of dugong and the largest breeding ground of green turtles. There is no doubt, the world’s largest living creature is truly a wonder of nature.
25 Million Years Ago: Corals As Far As The Eye Can See
The reef began on the eastern coast of the continent of Australia during the Miocene epoch. It was formed by corals, tiny anemone-like animals that secrete shell to form colonies of millions of individuals.
Over millions of years these tiny animals created a vast superstructure large enough to be seen from space. Now the reef is a ghost of its former self as acres upon acres of corals are devastated by bleaching.
In an exclusive report by the Guardian, diver Richard Vevers documents how the reef was devastated and what can be done to save it. Vevers’ descriptions of his dives offer a glimpse to the sad state of the Great Barrier Reef.
“I can’t even tell you how bad I smelt after the dive – the smell of millions of rotting animals” says Vevers. The advertising executive turned environmentalist is the founder of Ocean Agency, a not-for-profit company founded to raise awareness of environmental problems.
1981: The Beginning Of The End For The Great Barrier Reef
The reef’s mass bleaching first began in 1981, also the same year UNESCO designated it a world heritage site. In an ironic twist, the corals lost their vibrant colors and started turning bone-white, a sign of things to come.
Corals derive their vibrant colors though a symbiotic relationship with algae that flourishes on their surface. The algae use the sun to photosynthesize and create sugars which are in turn eaten by the coral polyps.
The sudden rise in temperature increased the algae population therefore causing a rise in oxygen levels. While necessary for the corals to flourish, oxygen is high concentrations can be toxic.
The corals were faced with a difficult choice; forgo their source of food or die of oxygen poisoning. They opted to do the former and inadvertently starved, losing their colors in the process.
The 2000s: Save The Great Barrier Reef
By the next millennium, mass coral bleachings were common. The world is currently undergoing the longest and probably worst global coral bleaching event in history. Climate change not only brought a rise in global ocean temperature but also more carbon absorption resulting in them becoming more acidic.
Concerned for the reef’s future, many people made an effort to raise awareness on its current state. Sad to say, the majority of them proved to be fruitless as no effort was made by the Australian government to save the reef.
Furthermore, the Australian government even thwarted attempts to to call attention to the reef’s plight. While we do not know if a serious effort to save the reef would have made any difference, it is sadly too late.
2016: Farewell Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef was predeceased by the South Pacific’s Coral Triangle, the Florida Reef off the Florida Keys, and most other coral reefs on earth. It is survived by the remnants of the Belize Barrier Reef and some deepwater corals.