Does the Great Barrier Reef even have a future?

More and more coral shoals are mutating into a kind of underwater ghost forest. Instead of showing off their colorful glow, the stingers lose their color and stand pale white. Photo: — / Great Barrier Reef Foundation / dpa

If you dive into the ocean off Australia’s northeastern coast, you will literally experience a heavenly miracle.

Shoals of tropical fish, humpback whales and dwarf whales, sea turtles, sharks, rays, colorful corals and gently swaying anemones – the Great Barrier Reef, with its variety of fascinating creatures, is considered one of the most breathtaking natural wonders in the world.

But more and more schools of coral are mutating into a kind of undersea ghost forest: instead of outdoing each other in their brilliance of colors, the stinging sticks suddenly lose their color and turn pale and white.

The world’s largest reef, which can even be seen from space, is increasingly vulnerable to ocean warming – and increasingly affected by extreme coral bleaching. “The future of the Great Barrier Reef is on the brink, but it is not too late to save it,” said Anna Marsden, director of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, on June 8 at World Oceans Day.

The earth is 70 percent covered with water. The seas are of great importance to the survival of mankind: not only do they produce a lot of oxygen, they are also a source of food, raw materials and energy. At the same time, they suffer greatly from climate change, as the example of the Great Barrier Reef shows. “The oceans are victims of global warming and at the same time our greatest hope,” writes the German Union for Nature Conservation (Nabu).

Early warnings

Already in March, experts warned of a renewed severe coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef due to higher sea temperatures. Since May, it has been clear: more than 90 percent of the reefs are already affected. This is the fourth mass whitening since 2016.

“Coral balenies have been reported in all three reef regions, and the range ranges from moderate to severe,” said the director of the Marsden Foundation of the German Press Agency. Under harsh conditions, corals shed the algae that cause coloration and with which they live differently. Bleached corals are very stressed out, but – and that’s good news – they’re still alive. “If the cause of the stress is removed and it gets cooler, for example, the corals are able to regenerate.”

Climate change is by far the greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef and coral reefs worldwide. However, other factors often come into play – and this is also the case in Australia. “Poor water quality, coral-eating starfish in the crown of thorns, and hurricanes and unfavorable weather are also part of an increasing risk combination,” said Marsden.

Is there still salvation?

Experts intensively search for solutions. “We can save the Great Barrier Reef for future generations, and we gather the brightest minds and the best science to do so,” said Marsden. Successes have already been achieved. Among other things, about how to grow corals more resistant to heat and prevent their fading by cooling and shading. Research also indicates that corals can be more resistant to environmental stress by administering probiotics.

The Great Barrier Reef has been badly damaged but is far from dead, emphasizes the Marine Parks Authority (GBRMPA). “Reports that focus on how many reefs have died suggest the last resort,” the website reads. But there are about 3,000 reefs scattered at 14 degrees latitude – not a single creature, but a huge ecosystem. “The area is larger than Britain, Switzerland and the Netherlands combined.”

Great Barrier Reef

The corals stand on the rocks of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia (photo unknown). Photo: — / Great Barrier Reef Foundation / dpa

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