Stretching for a remarkable 2,300 kilometers along the coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is not only an Australian landmark, but as one of the world’s most impressive natural wonders, is also recognised as both a National- and World Heritage site worthy of protection for future generations.
Why is the Great Barrier Reef important?
Home to almost 25% of all marine species, coral reefs are extremely important both ecologically, and in terms of the services they provide – they form protective barriers that offer coastal protection; they provide habitat and nursery areas for hundreds of marine species, directly and indirectly supporting many important commercial fisheries; they play an important role in tourism; and provide recreational fishing and diving opportunities. As such, they also play an important economic role, which millions of people around the world depend on largely for their survival. The Great Barrier Reef is no exception. In fact, as the world’s largest coral reef system — consisting of more than 2,900 individual coral reefs and 900 islands covering around 344,400 square kilometers — extremely popular with tourists and divers from all over the world, the ecological and economic services it provides simply cannot be overstated.
What’s happening to the Great Barrier Reef?
However, the long-term viability of coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, is threatened by ocean warming and ocean acidification – both of which are a result of carbon emissions from human activities.
Corals depend on a unique kind of microalgae for their survival. The microalgae provide coral with nutrients and with the colour pigment that makes them brightly coloured. This symbiotic relationship fails when water temperatures rise, causing coral to lose their colour, or become ‘bleached’. While corals may be able to survive bleaching, prolonged heat stress will eventually lead to mass die offs of coral. This occurred two decades ago in 1998, when around 16% of the world’s corals were lost during a single, but extended period of warmth that was experienced worldwide.
Added to this, coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, face the double-whammy of ocean acidification. The oceans become more acidic when they absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide. Acidic seawater reduces the ability of coral to flourish as it limits calcification processes necessary for growth. It may also reduce their ability to adapt to rising temperatures by becoming more heat tolerant.
Other threats include issues such as overfishing and destructive fishing practices (reduces biodiversity and causes ecological imbalances on coral reef systems and can destroy coral/habitat); pollution from organic and inorganic pollutants, as well as plastic and other marine debris (plastic significantly increases coral’s susceptibility to disease); and outbreaks of predatory species, such as the Crown of Thorns Starfish that feed on coral, threatening the integrity and biodiversity of coral reef systems when the forage in large numbers.
Like Australia’s greatest landmark and natural wonder is not facing enough threats already, the Australian government recently approved the developement of the proposed Carmichael coal mine, owned by the Indian-based Adani Group. The proposed coal mine will extend over a 200 square kilometer stretch within Queensland’s Galilee Basis, which is located 400 kilometers inland from the Great Barrier Reef, and will require the construction of a major railway line to transport the mined coal to the nearest coastal ports (Abbot Point and Hay Point, located close to Gladstone on the coast of Queensland), which are located adjacent to the south end of the Great Barrier Reef. The anticipated increase in shipping will mean that both ports will need to be expanded and dredged to accommodate the additional maritime traffic. Then, once the coal has been loaded onto the ships, it will need to be shipped through the maze of coral reefs and islands that collectively make up the Great Barrier Reef, across to India. Once there, it be used as fuel in power plants that will produce greenhouse gas emissions that will feed back into the cycle of issues causing ocean warming and ocean acidity. All in all, not good for the reef on so many levels.
What can we do to help preserve it?
A study conducted by a team of Canadian and Australian scientists, which was published in Nature Climate Change, reveals that coral reefs around the world face substantial degradation unless drastic action is taken to reduce the rate of climate change. The only way to prevent such a scenario, would be to take severe action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and then, assuming that coral would be able to quickly adapt, two thirds of the world’s coral reefs may be spared. We can all do our bit here. No matter how insignificant it may seem, if we all take measures to reduce our carbon footprint, collectively we can make a difference. Apart from joining the #stopadani movement, we can all make simple changes, such as walking, cycling or taking public transport rather than using our private vehicles to get around can help reduce carbon emissions that contribute to ocean warming and ocean acidification.
There are several other ways you can help preserve the reef. For those that prefer to get involved by taking a more hands-on approach, start by visiting the Great Barrier Reef to experience its splendour first hand so you can truly understand the need to preserve it. All visitors contribute to the management and protection of the reef via a mandatory Environmental Management Charge, so not only will you become more aware of why it needs to be preserved, just by visiting you will contribute to its management and preservation. Once there, emerge yourself in an educational presentation from Reef Teach that will enable you to learn more about the ecology and threats the reef is facing. They also offer a more advanced guided underwater tour (diving or snorkeling), as well as an internship program, where volunteers help collect data for research.
Voluntourism is an excellent way to experience the Great Barrier Reef. Not only do you get to help collect data that can help advance scientific research, you will be trained by highly skilled marine biologists and have a truly hands-on experience alongside like-minded conservation orientated volunteers. It really is win-win all round. You contribute your time and manpower to marine science, your tourism package/accommodation fees contribute to marine conservation, and at the end of your stay you will leave much more aware and more passionate about the need to save the Great Barrier Reef.