Australia’s Great Barrier Reef stretches for over 2,600 kilometres. It is larger than the Great Wall of China and is the only living thing on earth that is visible from space.
Recently, the reef has been subject to death sentences and obituaries— but the reality is that the situation is a lot more complicated than a simple time-of-death label.
Two weeks ago, Rowan Jacobsen of Outside Online wrote an obituary which claimed the Great Barrier Reef died this year. It was shared by 1.42 million people, including myself. At first, I thought this was astounding. I thought a large number of people were concerned about the environmental impact on the world heritage site. However, as passionate as we can get about the environment, a lack of knowledge makes us susceptible to catchy headlines.
Scientists and social media immediately slammed the article for doing more harm than good. While it may be renewing interest in the bleaching of corals, it’s also allowing people to forget about the reef, as it is still “alive”, and move on to other issues. Jacobsen put responsibility on the Australian government and climate change for killing the reef. While the explanation for why the reef is dying does involve both political and environmental causes, it should be noted that the reef is in danger, not dead. According to other various news articles opposing the obituary, one headline states, “[It] is in great trouble. But it’s way too soon for obituaries.”
Claiming the reef is dead hurts efforts being made to save this massive, complex ecosystem. While widespread bleaching of the coral is a serious growing issue, a preliminary government report by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority states that 22 percent of the reef had died from the bleaching, but three-quarters survived.
Bleaching occurs when warmer water temperatures, pollution, or increased exposure to sunlight causes the coral to forcefully eject the algae living in its tissues. The algae are the coral’s prime source of nutrition, and also the reason for their colour. This causes the coral to forcefully remove the algae, consequently starving the coral and turning it white. Corals can survive a bleaching event, but are under a lot more stress.
The Queensland government has come under a lot of fire by environmental experts. From providing controversial mining licenses—which result in significantly more carbon dioxide due to the eventual burning of the coal—to climate change and increasing pollution from farmland chemicals, not enough initiative is being taken to rescue a sick and highly vulnerable ecosystem.
According to the New Scientist, the largest coal mining project was approved this year: three licenses would permit Indian-based mining company Adani “to extract coal from the planned Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin.” In addition, the port adjacent to the reef would be expanded to make room for extra traffic, which may throw debris into the reef, and damage it.
Greg Hunt, the former Australian federal environment minister, received extreme backlash for going against his international responsibility to protect the Great Barrier Reef.
According to the New York Times, the Australian government removed a chapter describing damage to the Great Barrier Reef from the UN report about the impact of climate change on World Heritage sites. Their reason? Further exposure of the damage to the reef would affect tourism. Instead, the Union of Concerned Scientists have published the chapter on their website to bring to light the damage being done to the 1,400 miles of reef along the Australian east coast.
According to The Guardian, nearly $13 billion is being spent to save the Murray-Darling basin of Australia. The Great Barrier Reef, home to over 5,000 living species, deserves the same attention, if not more.