The Great Barrier Reef is dying in front of our very eyes

16 Mar 2017

The Great Barrier Reef. Image: pics721/Shutterstock

And so, one of the most delicate ecosystems on the planet begins to give up the ghost, as the Great Barrier Reef falls into decline.

A warning sign for the rest of us perhaps, the Great Barrier Reef’s importance to the human race is a little hard to truly measure.

Its massive ecosystem of coral and fish enters into a food chain that helps to feed neighbouring countries, finance Australian economic growth and, as the basis for countless documentaries, inspire generation after generation of scientists.

However, that could all be ending soon, after evidence of a massive die-off of the reef was reported in Nature.

Significant chunks of the reef, dotted across hundreds of miles of the northern sector, were recently found bleached and dead – a reality that was previously estimated to be a full three decades away.

“In the north, I saw hundreds of reefs – literally two-thirds of the reefs were dying and are now dead,” said Terry Hughes of James Cook University in Australia, lead author of the study.

Hughes’s discovery came in 2016 on an excursion into the underwater carnival of life, reporting on the third bleaching event since 1998 – with the latest proving the most damaging of the trio.

“It broke my heart to see so many corals dying on northern reefs on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016,” Hughes said. “With rising temperatures due to global warming, it’s only a matter of time before we see more of these events. A fourth event after only one year would be a major blow to the reef.”

The latest bleaching event, caused as always by rising sea temperatures, was not instigated by the warming effect of El Niño weather patterns.

Hughes said he hoped coming weeks would “cool off quickly and this year’s bleaching won’t be anything like last year”, which, he said, was “off the chart”.

Worryingly, there’s very little that local authorities can do to help out. The study claims that water quality and fishing pressure “had minimal effect” on the bleaching, with local efforts affording “little or no resistance to extreme heat”.

“Consequently, immediate global action to curb future warming is essential to secure a future for coral reefs.”

Coral bleaching is caused by rising water temperatures that are exacerbated by man-made climate change – oceans absorb the vast majority of the increase in the Earth’s heat.

In fact, humanity is making a mess of the underwater world from every angle possible. For example, earlier this year it emerged that human-made pollutants that were banned in the 1970s have emerged deep within the food chain of our oceans’ darkest depths.

These pollutions included polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers – pollutants commonly used as electrical insulators and flame retardants.

The former was banned in the 1970s in many parts of the world, which means that during its four-decade run, enough PCB was produced – estimated at 1.3m tonnes – to have a potentially damaging impact 40 years later.

Reefs are under threat everywhere. This time last year, the surprising discovery of a new, large coral reef in the murky waters of the Amazon was immediately tempered with the realisation that it was under threat.

Red, green and brown algae. 34 species of seaweed. 61 different types of sponge. Cnidaria and 73 species of reef fish. Despite the life that exists there, it appears that the coral reef discovery, measuring 9,500 sq km in total, was more of a warning than a rejoice.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic