In case you weren’t already worried about the state of the world’s oceans, a study published in the journal Nature this week suggested that the Great Barrier Reef may soon be a vestige of the past. “We thought the Barrier Reef was too big to fail, but it’s not,” one of the paper’s authors told the New York Times. The study covered the bleaching of coral in 2016 and 2017 that was caused by uncharacteristically high ocean temperatures.
The recent bleaching led to massive deaths of adult coral and significantly stunted the reef’s capacity to regenerate and recover. Following the bleaching events, baby coral populations were almost 90 percent smaller than they have been in the past. As if that measure isn’t bleak enough, most of the coral that has been able to repopulate isn’t even the species that the reef and its inhabitants rely upon.
Coral reefs are resilient, up to a point. Given time, they are able to repopulate. The problem that the marine ecosystem faces right now is that it will likely not have the time it needs to heal. “So we’ve had two summers now with no bleaching following two summers with extreme bleaching,” explained one of the researchers to PBS. “But we need 10 of them in a row, and the chances of that happening are pretty slim.”
At the current rate, the researchers cited that “70-90 percent of the world’s coral reefs could disappear by as soon as 2030 owing to global warming, unless decisive action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Global warming is the main factor in coral bleaching and destruction. According to the Times, if we don’t take steps to reduce our man made emissions immediately, bleaching events will occur with increasing frequency until 2044 — after which they will take place every year, decimating what remains of the Great Barrier Reef.
Aside from the devastating impact it has on marine biodiversity, why does coral bleaching matter to humans? For one thing, economies all around the world rely upon the tourism that snorkeling, scuba diving, and fishing bring to pristine coasts. The fishing industry also depends on the health of reefs, since reefs support healthy fish populations. In Australia alone, tourism and fishing in the Great Barrier Reef brings in about $6 billion dollars each year. There are several nations in Southeast Asia whose economies will need to be completely restructured if their reefs falter.
Reefs also serve an even more elemental role in many people’s lives. Island nations in the South Pacific rely upon reefs not just for subsistence fishing but also the structures’ ability to protect their land against the force of the sea. Without healthy reefs, and especially as the sea level continues to rise, some of these nations are completely vulnerable to the devastating force of the ocean. These are the nations that have some of the smallest carbon footprints in the world, yet have the most to lose in a future of unchecked global warming.