The Great Barrier Reef is not dead. Any 'obituary' is premature

Great Barrier Reef was issued an obituary by Outside Magazine: Yes, the reef is really in trouble, but not quite dead yet. Scientists say that signing the death certificate could be counterproductive. 

David Bellwood/ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies via AP/File
This February photo by ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies shows mature stag-horn coral bleached at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef off the eastern coast of northern Australia. The reef studies center released the results of its survey of the 2,300-kilometer (1,430-mile) reef off Australia's east coast on Monday. The scientists found that about 35 percent of the coral in the northern and central sections of the reef are dead or dying. Some parts of the reef had lost more than half of the coral to bleaching.

Don’t let the headlines fool you - The Great Barrier Reef is struggling, certainly, but it isn’t dead yet.

A hyperbolic, tongue-in-cheek obituary published by Outside Magazine this week declared the death of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef due to a long illness. Yet scientists say that the reef can still be saved - but only if people think that there is something left to save.

“The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old,” wrote Outside’s Rowan Jacobsen, adding that, “No one knows if a serious effort could have saved the reef, but it is clear that no such effort was made.”

It is true that the Great Barrier Reef is in trouble. The longest-running coral bleaching event in history is ongoing - rising water temperatures are damaging for coral reefs, and as the world warms, its oceans will warm as well.

So, too, is it true that human efforts to save the reef have often lagged far behind what is necessary to save and revive this and other coral reefs.

Mr. Jacobsen cites Australia’s decision to remove a chapter about the Great Barrier Reef from a UNESCO report on the impact of climate change on World Heritage sites as one example of how humans have ignored the reef’s plight. Australia was concerned that including the Great Barrier Reef in the report would curtail reef tourism, a massive source of income for the country.

Yet there is still hope for the Great Barrier Reef. More than half of the reef is still alive. And critics say that declaring the reef dead now is to give up hope entirely at a time when the reef most needs help.

“We can and must save the Great Barrier Reef ― it supports 70,000 jobs in reef tourism,” ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies director Terry Hughes told the Huffington Post. “Large sections of it (the southern half) escaped from the 2016 bleaching, and are in reasonable shape. The message should be that it isn’t too late for Australia to lift its game and better protect the GBR, not we should all give up because the GBR is supposedly dead.”

In September, The Christian Science Monitor reported that scientists discovered a second Great Barrier Reef hiding behind the first. Its massive structures give scientists a new arena to explore the changes that warming oceans and acidification can bring to a reef.

The Monitor’s Ben Rosen reported in June that reefs with dependent human populations often show signs of being the most resilient, likely because their human stewards are acutely aware of the reef’s importance.

Some studies even show that different varieties of coral are more resilient than others, Mr. Rosen reports.

Others say that testing the millions of microbes that make their homes in coral reefs could help scientists identify which parts of a reef are failing before the coral bleaches, helping possibly save at-risk sections.

Some, however, say that the Outside obituary may be the wake-up call the world needs:

“As a coral biologist who has been working for a decade and a half to understand the reefs problems, and let reef managers and others know what the problems are so they can be addressed, I can tell you it is a very frustrating and heart-breaking job,” Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology coral expert Greta Aeby told the Huffington Post. “So maybe an article like that is what is needed ... although I doubt if it will really make a difference.”

The Great Barrier Reef "obituary" concludes:

It is survived by the remnants of the Belize Barrier Reef and some deepwater corals.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Ocean Ark Alliance.

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