This spiralling, three-dimensional coral maze is bleached for the second year in a row, but it can recover – if we act immediately
April 12, 2017 — And so it begins: the end of days. The Great Barrier Reef is bleaching for the second year in a row and now, according to the results of helicopter surveys released on Monday, it is the middle part (all 300 miles-plus of it) that is suffering the awful reef stress that comes courtesy of a warming ocean.
Coral bleaching is incredibly serious. In especially warm summers, the complex balance between the symbiotic algae and the coral becomes disrupted. To save themselves, the coral expels the algae in the hope of better times ahead. In this state, the coral becomes whitened. That’s what bleaching is.
Without the algae to synthesise most of its energy, the coral operates on a kind of “standby” mode. It is vulnerable in this state. Only one third of the entire Great Barrier Reef remains unbleached. The bell, it seems, is tolling for one of the most biologically active parts of planet Earth.
I watched this Great Barrier Reef story unfold, and what started out as quite a conservative bit of science reporting quickly morphed into something else. By midday, many news outlets started running with the line that the Great Barrier Reef was now in a “terminal stage” – a phrase used by one (understandably frustrated) expert in the Guardian’s coverage of the story and recycled into all sorts of other online reports, which then did loops on Twitter.
“Oh Christ,” I thought, “James Delingpole is going to love this.” Skip forward a few hours and the columnist did his thing on Breitbart – don’t go looking for it, but let’s just say I was proved right. For a bleached reef is not a dead reef as you no doubt know – and the climate-change deniers have enjoyed the chance to throw around more allegations of “scaremongering” and their accusations that “Greenies don’t do science” – which is, of course, ridiculous.
Such backlash from climate-change deniers like Delingpole is inevitable. But in this case, I think the conservation hand really was overplayed. Is the Great Barrier Reef really in terminal decline? Is it really done and dusted? I don’t think so. Because coral bleaching, though incredibly serious and concerning, quite simply is not death. (Indeed the scientists involved in the study themselves said: “Bleached corals are not necessarily dead corals …”). Coral reefs can recover. There is reason for hope, therefore. Hope, but not complacency.
Looking at other reefs around the world offers us some perspective. Of 21 reefs monitored by scientists in the Seychelles, for instance, 12 have since recovered after a coral bleaching episode in 1998. (The other nine? Now seaweed-covered ruins). In Palau, many reefs recovered within a decade after being hit by the same 1998 temperature spike. Likewise, in an isolated reef system in Western Australia, that same bleaching episode also affected 90% of the corals. For six years the reef remained bleached, but by 2010 it had recovered.
This isn’t to say that all reefs can recover. But given time and enough protection from other threats, there is hope.
Though bleaching events have never been known to occur back-to-back (for example in 2016 and 2017) as they have in parts of the Great Barrier Reef this year, the reef has recovered from bleaching events before in 1998 and 2002 – and no doubt before that. It can recover, given time and the security a commitment to global carbon emission targets would bring. It can, and must, survive this latest episode of bleaching. After all, the Great Barrier Reef is worth £3.5bn to the Australian economy each year, and keeps 69,000 people in work. As well as being a bubbling, spiralling three-dimensional maze of biological interactions, it’s also an economic nest-egg for Australia. What sort of government would want to squander that?
So it’s not terminal, yet. Instead, the bleaching is an indicator that yet another wild place is taking a battering. That yet another flag is waving. That the climate is changing. That the incredible symbiosis of algae and coral is breaking down. We must act immediately.