The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest living structure, was trending on social media Friday, after it was declared dead this week in a symbolic obituary presumably meant to increase awareness.
The obituary published by Outside Magazine worked, though it also spurred some publications and social media users to falsely say scientists had confirmed the reef’s death. No, the Great Barrier Reef isn’t dead, not this time at least. But it is seriously injured and slowly dying, Australian advocates said Thursday.
“Most of the coral we saw damaged in May is now dead, but what is really disturbing is the ongoing damage,” Tim Flannery, Climate Council chief counselor, said in the video. “It’s going to be a long time before this place recovers.”
the #1 thing on my bucket list was to scuba in the Great Barrier Reef, and I just found out that scientists have declared it dead 😭🌊
— Remi Cruz 💕 (@missremiashten) October 14, 2016
In April, Australia’s government raised the bleaching threat for its most famous natural landmark to the highest level. That came a month after scientists said that bleaching off the coast of northern Australia was the worst they had seen. Australia has, meanwhile, been experiencing high summer and fall temperatures.
At the same time, oceans worldwide are known to be absorbing much of the earth’s warming, as well as taking in pollution that makes oceans more acidic and less able to support organisms.
According to Climate Council, more than 20 percent of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral died after this year’s bleaching, and while the reef is showing some recovery, dead coral are now being covered by brown algae. “If [the Reef] was a person, it would be on life support,” Flannery said.
Coral reefs are considered living ecosystems made up of fragments of coral, coral sands, algae and other organic deposits, as well as solid limestone. When ocean temperatures increase too much or too quickly, the coral expels the photosynthesizing algae that enables the thriving systems. If that warming is prolonged, coral doesn’t reincorporate their algae, it bleaches, and it dies.
Late last year a study found that reefs can fully recover, even after massive bleaching events wipe out most of a reef, as happened in the remote Chagos Archipelago in 1998. However, recovery is a slow and fragile process that requires stable, proper conditions.
“If bleaching keeps happening due to global warming, there will be less time for reefs to recover,” Lesley Hughes, scientist and council for Climate Council, said in the video.
Meanwhile, the risk of more massive bleaching remains high worldwide with greenhouse gas emissions still driving global temperatures to unprecedented levels.
As a result, reef cover around the world has dropped by half in three decades, according to a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report published last year. Without bold action, the world’s reefs could disappear completely by 2050. According to WWF report, human-caused climate change and overfishing are the main factors behind the reefs’ decline. Reef deaths would affect as many as 850 million people who depend on reefs for food.
To date, there have been two large-scale coral bleaching events since the first recorded by scientists took place 1998. The latest was the longest bleaching event in recorded history, lasting almost two years.
But not everything is bad news for the Great Barrier Reef. Over the summer, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a $1 billion fund to protect the UNESCO site. And early this month, the Paris Accord, a global agreement meant to limit warming to no more 2°C and avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, was ratified by enough countries to enter into force next month.