Oceania > Australia > ‘Coral bleaching is incredibly serious, but reefs can recover. There is reason for hope, therefore. Hope, but not complacency

Australia: ‘Coral bleaching is incredibly serious, but reefs can recover. There is reason for hope, therefore. Hope, but not complacency

2017/04/15

And so it begins: the end of days. The Great Barrier Reef is bleaching for the second year in a row and presently, 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 critical. In particularly 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 national, 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 national. Only one third of all Great Barrier Reef remains unbleached. The bell, it seems, is tolling for one of the majority biologically active parts of planet Earth.

I watched this Great Barrier Reef story unfold, and what started out as completely a conservative bit of science reporting quickly morphed into something else. By midday, a lot of news outlets started running with the line that the Great Barrier Reef was presently 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 again 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 luck to throw around additional 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 critical and concerning, completely 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 next a coral bleaching episode in 1998. (The other nine? Presently seaweed-covered ruins). In Palau, a lot of reefs recovered within a decade next being hit by the same 1998 temperature spike. Likewise, in an isolated reef system in Western Australia, that same bleaching episode as well 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 at no time 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 world carbon emission targets would bring. It can, and must, survive this new episode of bleaching. Next all, the Great Barrier Reef is worth £3.5bn to the Australian economy each year, and keeps 69,000 people in work. Inclunding being a bubbling, spiralling three-dimensional maze of biological interactions, it’s as well an economic nest-egg for Australia. What sort of government would want to squander that?

So it’s not terminal, from presently on. Instead, the bleaching is an indicator that from presently on an extra wild place is taking a battering. That from presently on an extra flag is waving. That the climate is changing. That the incredible symbiosis of algae and coral is breaking down. We must act instantly.

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