The race to save the Great Barrier Reef

Washout: Will astronauts still be able to see Earth’s largest living structure from space? © Alamy

For the third time in a decade, the Great Barrier Reef has suffered mass coral bleaching. A recent survey found widespread damage as a result of a hot summer and rising sea temperatures.

What’s happening

In the summer of 2016, high temperatures led to mass coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef. Biologists watched in horror as the colour faded from the beautiful structures. By the following year, half of the shallow water corals had died. Now, it has happened all over again.

Find out more

Nearly 1,500 miles long, the Great Barrier Reef boasts a kaleidoscope of colourful life. It is home to 9,000 species of fish, molluscs, jellyfish, turtles, and other creatures. But rising global temperatures have led to coral bleaching, threatening the rich biodiversity of the reef.

Bleaching occurs when there is a dramatic change to the environment. Fortunately, it is not always fatal. “Corals will recover, but they need time”, researcher Christian Roth explains.

A UN panel has warned global warming must be slowed to give corals the necessary time to recover, saying it is the “single greatest challenge” facing the reef.

The site attracts millions of tourists and protects Australia’s shores from storms.

Can we save the Great Barrier Reef?

Some say…

It could be too late already. Some scientists believe the level of bleaching that has already occurred could mean that corals will not be able to grow back as they normally would. Coral larvae cannot establish itself after total damage, and while parts of the reef are still growing, any more bleaching could mean there is nothing more we can do.

Others think…

Of course! Scientists are using technology to make 3D maps of the reef and introduce genetically selected specimens into heavily affected areas. One researcher is working on brightening clouds to reflect sunlight away from the reef. Meanwhile, governments and individuals could slow the effects of bleaching by lowering greenhouse emissions.

You Decide

  1. Is it okay to fix global warming by redesigning the natural world?

Activities

  1. Use the internet to make a collage of pictures of the Great Barrier Reef, and share it with your friends to raise awareness.

Some People Say...

“Ice ages have come and gone. Coral reefs have persisted.”

Sylvia Earle, American scientist

What do you think?

Word Watch

Corals
Tiny soft-bodied animals (related to the jellyfish) that typically live within a stony skeleton grouped in large colonies.
Kaleidoscope
Here, means a constantly changing pattern.
Molluscs
Soft water animals without bones; they don’t have skeletons or exoskeletons.
Coral bleaching
Coral bleaching is when the coral gets rid of the algae that live inside it. Normally, corals live in harmony with these algae, which are crucial for the health of the coral and the reef, and are responsible for the colours of the corals. Bleaching occurs when the environment undergoes a change. For example, in a cyclone or in particularly warm weather.
Biodiversity
The word used to describe a number of different living species. Experts are slowly realising that the future of our species on Earth depends on maintaining high biodiversity. The biodiversity in the Great Barrier Reef is particularly rich, and thousands of species rely on each other to survive.
UN panel
The United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has studied the results of the survey.
Larvae
A young, wingless form (like a grub or caterpillar) of many insects that hatches from an egg and looks very different from its parents.
Establish
Here, means to take root and grow.
Genetically selected
Scientists have found the species that are genetically well-suited to surviving in warmer temperatures and are using these to repopulate damaged areas.
Specimens
An individual animal or plant used as an example of its species or type for study or display.

Subjects

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