Literary giant Mark Twain once said, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” and according to scientists, the same is true when it comes to the 1,400-mile-long Great Barrier Reef in Australia – despite the recent publication of its obituary by Outside Online.
In that piece, author Rowan Jacobsen mourns the loss of the 25-million-year old community of coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean, which he referred to as “one of the most spectacular features on the planet,” to the effects of climate change and ocean acidification following “a long illness.”
“For most of its life, the reef was the world’s largest living structure, and the only one visible from space,” Jacobsen wrote in the piece. “In total area, it was larger than the United Kingdom, and it contained more biodiversity than all of Europe combined… [and] among its many other achievements, the reef was home to one of the world’s largest populations of dugong and the largest breeding ground of green turtles.”
Despite being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, he added, it experienced mass bleaching events regularly, and by the turn of the century, the waters surrounding it had become so acidic that they began to dissolve the reef itself. Ultimately, Jacobsen noted, it succumbed to these events – only, according to other scientists, the Reef isn’t quite dead yet.
‘Not too late’ to save the Reef, despite recent bleaching events
“It’s not too late for the Great Barrier Reef, and people who think that have a really profound misconception about what we know and don’t know about coral resilience,” Dr. Kim Cobb from the Georgia Tech School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences told the Los Angeles Times Friday.
“We just had a massive bleaching event, but we know from past research that corals are able to recover from the brink of death,” she said. Coral, the professor explained, is an animal that lives in a symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic algae. When the water becomes too warm, that algae becomes “chemically destructive” to the coral.
This causes the coral to spit out the algae in order to protect itself, causing the transparent coral to lose all of its color in the process. “So you are not necessarily seeing dead coral, you’re really just seeing clear coral without its algae,” Dr. Cobb said. However, she warned that bleaching is still harmful to the coral, as losing its food source could cause it to “starve to death.” Preventing that requires the water temperature to cool down, and to do so relatively quickly.
Russell Brainard, the head of the Coral Reef Ecosystem Program at the NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center , told the Huffington Post that he believed that the article was written so that it would drive home the urgent danger facing the Reef, but that there was the risk that some people would “take it at face value that the Great Barrier Reef is dead.”
Earlier this year, researchers from the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies reported that a recent bleaching event had caused serious damage to 93% of the Reef, and on Thursday, scientists found that more than one-fifth of the coral died as a result of that incident. While Brainard said that the bleaching event was a “severe blow” to the Reef’s health, he added that “we’re very far from an obituary” for the Heritage site.
Image credit: Public Domain
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