By Megan Crimmins
A plane touches down in Queensland, Australia. Between the mass of black suitcases and Hawaiian themed shirts lies a mesh bag plastered with a bright red flag crossed diagonally by a white stripe. A lone scuba diver grips her bag with white knuckles, barely able to contain her excitement. Australia is home to one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and a life-long dream for divers everywhere. The diver is on her way to realizing that dream, exploring the Great Barrier Reef. Hopefully, she’s not too late.
The Great Barrier Reef, one of the largest and most biodiverse living systems on Earth, is greatly affected by human activity. Warming ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, and pollution are proving to be more than the reef can handle. Climate change not only warms the atmosphere but the ocean as well.
Rising ocean temperatures cause a phenomenon called coral bleaching. Corals get most of their nutrients and oxygen from algae called zooxanthellae that live in their spores. When temperatures get too warm, coral get stressed and eject these algae, losing their color (hence the term bleaching) and losing vital components. Coral do not immediately die after bleaching incidents, but can take up to a decade to recover, during which they are more susceptible to disease. If there are continuous events of bleaching, corals may never be able to bounce back. In 2016, widespread bleaching damaged ninety-five percent of the Great Barrier Reef and has continued to spread.
Climate change is also creating a world where storms are more frequent and larger. Storms damage reef systems and destroy habitats for animals that live in and around the Great Barrier Reef. Another issue is runoff from agricultural land going into the ocean. Runoff leads to overpopulation of crown-of-thorns starfish, a species that can live in harmony with coral in a balanced ecosystem. However, when overpopulated, they diminish reef structures by eating coral. All of these factors are making it harder and harder for the reef to sustain a healthy existence; total coral coverage on the reef declined by 50.7% from 1985 to 2012. To make matters worse, local policies cannot control global issues like climate change, the weather, or run-off.
The Great Barrier Reef is important to humans because it provides numerous environmental and socioeconomic services. Reefs protect coastlines from storms. They are also important in the carbon and nitrogen cycles because they take harmful gases out of the atmosphere for their own use. Reefs help with nutrient recycling, the process of turning decaying species into nutrients that plants can use. One of the reef’s most important ecosystem services is fostering biodiversity, the variety of species in an ecosystem. When biodiversity declines, ecosystems face numerous issues. Humans rely on healthy ecosystems for all of the previously stated services, and more.
Countries, Australia especially, lean on the Great Barrier Reef economically. Tourists from all over the world come to Australia to see the Reef through snorkeling, air tours, and boat tours. Additionally, a large population of environmental scientists and master divers come for professional purposes. The reef brings in 1.5 billion dollars per year from fishing and tourism.The world has seen numerous reactions to the destruction of this natural phenomenon, but will these initiatives be enough? The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has split the reef into zones, and controls where people can fish or scuba dive, but because issues affecting the reef are global, it is hard to say whether local policies will have any significant impact on the health of the reef. In 2014, the World Parks Congress met was expected to add the Great Barrier Reef to the World Heritage in Danger list. However, it was shockingly omitted from the list due to lobbyists’ worries that tourism would be affected if the reef was listed as “in danger”. It is possible that this decision will be reversed at the next meeting in 2024, but until then, hopefully more local initiatives will continue to progress, and the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef will continue to serve as a warning to people across the globe.
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