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The Great Barrier Reef Is on Death’s Door, Thanks to Climate Change

In some areas of the Great Barrier Reef, up to two-thirds of the coral is dying or dead, according to a new report by soon to be published in Nature.

This catastrophic collapse is driven by one thing: warming waters. As heat-trapping human emissions gather in the atmosphere, the world’s oceans are absorbing a significant amount of heat, warming at rates that are profoundly affecting marine life.

Coral reefs are especially susceptible to temperature changes. Formed over millions of years, reefs are incredibly intricate structures that host vibrant ecosystems. The Great Barrier Reef was once home to “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,” according to this mock obituary published by Rising temperatures can wipe all this out.

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“Climate change is fuelling warmer waters, cooking the reef alive,” said Alix Foster Vander Elst, Campaigner for Greenpeace Australia Pacific in a statement. “Once a coral is dead, it’s gone forever.”

“We have on our doorstep the clearest signal that climate change is happening, and that governments aren’t moving fast enough to stop it,” she said. “We can still stop the reef’s destruction if we dramatically reduce global emissions.”

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Globally, ocean temperatures have risen at least 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the first industrial age and this increase is higher in some tropical areas.  

In 2016, a super El Nino caused a spike in global temperatures, leading to massive coral die-offs and bleaching.

Bleaching usually precedes death, because it means the creatures that give a reef its color have died. A bleached reef can be restored, but consecutive bleachings can be devastating.

For many of Australia’s reefs, 2015 and 2016 featured widespread bleaching.

“We didn’t expect to see this level of destruction to the Great Barrier Reef for another 30 years,” Terry P. Hughes, an author of the report, told The New York Times.

The Australian government is trying to rescue the reefs by altering water conditions, but that’s a losing battle.

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The only way to save the reefs is by ending global dependence on fossil fuels.

Outside’s obituary ended with these damning words:

“No one knows if a serious effort could have saved the reef, but it is clear that no such effort was made.”