Over the past few years, scientists and environmental advocates have repeatedly sounded the death knell for the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest continuous coral reef structure off the coast of Australia.
While the reef isn’t out of the clear yet, it has made substantial recoveries in recent months, according to the Reef and Rainforest Research Center.
The reef was in rough shape because of severe bleaching events that occurred in 2016 and 2017. Bleaching happens when water temperatures rise too abruptly, as has happened in the past two years, shocking coral and causing it to expel symbiotic organisms that give it color. The phenomenon gets it name because the coral turns bone-white afterward.
If bleaching events happen successively, they can cause whole sections or even entire reefs that had developed over thousands of years to die and never return.
Fortunately for the Great Barrier Reef, the most recent summer was cooler and various parts of the reef were able to regain some of their color.
“It is important to realize that bleaching occurs in multiple stages, ranging from the equivalent of a mild sunburn to coral mortality — so when a reef is reported as ‘bleached’ in the media, that often leaves out a critical detail on how severe that bleaching is, at what depth the bleaching has occurred, and if it’s going to cause permanent damage to the coral at that site,” RRRC Managing Director Sheriden Morris said in a press release.
“The Great Barrier Reef is a very large and diverse coral system with a high level of biodiversity, and has significant capacity to recover from health impacts like bleaching events,” he said.
Morris said that a large-scale effort by the Australian government and nonprofits has partly helped to protect the reef. Earlier in the year, the government committed $60 million to protecting the reef. That money has gone to improving water quality around the reef, preventing runoff from entering the surrounding area, and funding research.
But as critics have pointed out, there’s only so much that investments can do to save the reef in the face of climate change.
“Funding research is necessary, but it will be a classic case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic unless the federal government moves quickly away from coal and other fossil fuels,” Imogen Zethoven, campaign director for the organization Fight for our Reef, said in a statement at the time.
All around the world, coral reefs are facing an unprecedented decline, and by 2050 all reefs in the world could vanish because of pressures from climate change.
Stil, Morris emphasized that doomsday predictions of the reef’s imminent demise gloss over the its resilience and diversity.
“It is clearly a misconception that the whole of the GBR suffered from severe coral bleaching and that the reef is dead,” Morris said. “This is blatantly untrue.”
“We all know that the reef may suffer further bleaching events as the climate continues to warm, but we have to do everything we possibly can to help protect our Great Barrier Reef,” he added.