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Is the Great Barrier Reef really dead?

Anne-Sophie Brändlin
October 18, 2016

It's not dead yet! The Great Barrier Reef has been hit hard by coral bleaching - that much is true. But a recent viral article proclaiming the reef dead is not quite accurate. DW clarifies and provides answers.

Australien Great Barrier Reef bedroht
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old," reads the first line of a controversial obituary published last week by Outside Magazine, an American publication focused on outdoor recreation.

The obituary has since been shared more than a million times - and has sparked a lively discussion on social media.

Many social media users mourned the Great Barrier Reef and expressed their sadness.

Others, however, were confused and unsure about the legitimacy of the obituary, which was likely intended as tongue-in-cheek.

Angry counter-articles quickly followed, pointing out that the reef is, in fact, still quite alive. The Huffington Post wrote: "Dead and dying are two very different things," and warned that "overstatements about the state of our planet (…) can cause people to lose hope."

So, is the Great Barrier really dead?

No, says Professor Terry Hughes, Director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. He took offense with the premature obituary and tweeted:

Professor Hugh Possingham, a conservation scientist at the University of Queensland, agrees. In an interview with DW, he called the obituary premature. But he added that the Great Barrier Reef is well on its way to being destroyed. 

"The Great Barrier Reef is not like a human being, where when your heart stops and your brain ceases to function you can be proclaimed dead. It is much more complicated than that," he said.

"I don't think it'll ever completely die - even if we do make the mistake of not taking action," Possingham continued. "These reef systems are huge, and they are enormously variable - there will always be some life in the system."

But the Great Barrier Reef may not be particularly great anymore, he said. "In 20 or 30 years, it may be a fairly second-class reef." 

Just how dead is the Great Barrier Reef?

Infographic: Great Barrier Reef bleaching extent

In April, the ARC published a report that 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef had been affected by coral bleaching. It's the most severe coral bleaching event on record, in which stressed corals have expelled vital algae and turned white.

But that doesn't mean all of the roughly 3,000 reefs in the underwater ecosystem are bleached. Some are more bleached than others, and every coral that's been affected by bleach isn't automatically dead. Some corals indeed perished completely, while others can recover - if given the chance.

So is there even a way to determine how much of the Great Barrier Reef has already died? "It's difficult," says Possingham. "The Great Barrier Reef is so big, and it's expensive gathering data in marine ecosystems. Plus, a lot of what appears to be dead may recover again."

Australia's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is in the midst of assessing the extent and severity of coral bleaching. According to preliminary findings published last week, 22 percent of coral on the reef has died due to the worst mass bleaching event on record. But on the plus side, that also means more than three quarters of the corals are still alive, in various states of health - and in dire need of being protected.

So proclaiming the Great Barrier Reef dead was definitely an exaggeration. But unlike some scientists, Possingham is less outraged by the premature obituary. After all, the world's largest reef is currently fighting for its life - and that can't be stressed enough.

"The obituary was of course slightly overstated, but if it draws attention to the issue and people start talking about it, then that's good."

"I'd rather have people talk about the issue in a not-fully-informed fashion than have them not talk about it at all," he said.

Why we need to protect what's left of the reef

The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest living structure. Located off the coast of Queensland, Australia, the coral reef ecosystem is more than 1,400 miles (2,250 kilometers) long and covers an area roughly the size of Germany. It is, in fact, the only living structure that can be seen from space.

No other reef in the world boasts such biodiversity. That's why the Great Barrier Reef was named a Unesco World Heritage Site. It is home to 600 types of hard and soft corals, as well as thousands of animal species - from fish to mollusks and birds.

But reefs are not just a beautiful and magical wonder. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), coral reefs provide food and shelter to a quarter of all marine life on the planet. 

And it's not just a matter of the survival of these animals. Loss of coral reefs puts humans at risk, too. Reefs protect coastal settlements against extreme weather by dampening the effect of storms from the open sea and reducing the force of waves. Without the Great Barrier Reef, nearby villages would simply fall into the ocean.

Reefs are also money-making machines: They provide billions of dollars in revenue from fishing and tourism. The Great Barrier Reef alone contributes $5 million Australian dollars (around 3 billion euros) per year to the tourism industry.

Climate change the biggest threat

The biggest threat to coral reefs like the Great Barrier Reef is climate change, according to Possingham. After all, oceans absorb the majority of the world's heat and greenhouse gases. With global warming on the rise, oceans are getting warmer and more acidic. And this is contributing to more coral bleaching.

Climate change is also worsening tropical storms like hurricanes, which destroy corals.

"There is evidence that the intensity and frequency of hurricanes have gone up because of climate change," Possingham said.

But climate change isn't the only threat to reefs. Overfishing, unsustainable tourism and pollution put further stress on the reefs.

"Around a third of all coral death is caused by crown-of-thorns-starfish," Possingham explained. The crown-of-thorns-starfish is one of the largest sea stars in the world, and it preys upon coral polyps.

Nitrogen, phosphate and fine sediments from agriculture and cities facilitated the destructive starfish. "And that's something we can stop immediately, by investing in better farming practices," Possingham pointed out.   

We need to move quickly

Great Barrier Reef
Corals in many areas of the Great Barrier Reef are only partially bleachedImage: Dorothea Bender-Champ for ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

If we don't start taking action immediately - most importantly, by aiming to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius - it may be time for a real obituary soon. According to Possingham, the Great Barrier Reef as we know it will only be around for the next 100 or 200 years if business as usual continues.

"It needs to be returned to full health - and there is still hope that we can save it." But even if we start doing everything possible now, it might take 20 years until the reef shows signs of recovery, Possingham thinks. "But it is possible."

For Possingham, we have the moral responsibility to do our utmost to halt climate change and the death of the Great Barrier Reef.

"In 500 years time, when humanity is looking at half the species extinct, they won't care about Donald Trump and Brexit and how many gold medals Germany won at the Olympic Games. They won't remember any of that," Possingham said.

"They'll be wondering why we destroyed half of our natural habitat."