Part II: Identifying The Problems

Over 2,900 individual reefs surrounding 750 continental and inshore islands. A staggering 300 coral cays home to more than 2,402 different species of marine life. More than 2,000 meters of depth across 348,000 km² of vast ocean territory. And an unmistakably captivating natural beauty.

Great Barrier reef foundation

Welcome to the stunningly diverse coast of Cairns, a city belonging to the northeastern Australian state of Queensland. Here, nature claims its dominion with an abundance of mesmerizing gifts, ranging from its army of islands to clusters of dominant tropical rainforests. However, one feature reigns as the ultimate capital of natural phenomena: the famed Great Barrier Reef. 

Experience Oz

It’s the undeniable epitome of life. The Great Barrier Reef is a true representation of biological diversity: one glimpse offers a breathtakingly unique perspective as the bright blue-green hue reflects glimmers of sunlight, the encompassing constellations of plant ridges carefully occupy the ocean floor in their characteristic puzzle-pattern layout, and fish swivel between the local anemones and echinoderms. The result is a growing ecosystem and a natural living entity-an incubator for new marine life.

The iconic oceanic display is the hallmark of all of Mother Nature’s creations, as thousands of species of animal and plant creatures sharing the region have developed a web of mutually-beneficial relationships. Its colorful and bold vibrancy has even caused some to rename the phenomenon as ‘the rainforest of the sea’ and rightfully so: over a fourth of all sea life can be found in coral reefs, rendering itself as a marine ecosystem vital to the well being of all of the ocean’s creatures. As a living fixture, its significance is further emphasized by its ability to synchronize with ocean temperatures and moon phases, among other surprisingly powerful capabilities. 

Image by Gaby Stein from Pixabay

Universally appreciated for its picturesque appearance, the coral reefs of Australia are cherished everywhere thanks to a wave of photographic admiration sweeping the web. As a consequence, an already existing tourism industry in the area has recently blossomed into an empire of visitors: according to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF), an annual two million tourists have contributed to an aggregate economic worth of $56 billion.

It is clear that people around the world appreciate the natural beauty, but recent findings have shown that the detrimental effects of human neglect are accelerating at an unprecedented rate. 

The effects of climate change, which were explored recently in an article published by The Bio Post, have unfortunately reached a concerning degree of impact on the Australian coral reefs. Increased levels of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, of which 25% is absorbed by the ocean, have played a negative impact on the beloved Barrier Reef, and human actions are to blame. 

Image by Brigitte Werner from Pixabay

Not only will the increased temperature and rising sea levels damage the ecosystem, but increasingly severe storms and unnatural climate patterns will start to become regular occurrences, the implications of which will affect the way reefs erode, disrupt the biodiversity of the environment, and blemish fragile habitats. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) warns that these changes may potentially lower water quality, thereby disturbing marine wildlife growth rates, breeding periods, and life cycles, among other significant changes.


Ocean Acidification

A primary example of the adverse results of climate change includes the increasingly referenced topic of ocean acidification, a process by which dissolved oxygen in seawater creates an acidic state and alters natural chemical processes. The Great Barrier Reef Foundation (not to be confused with GBRMPA) suggests that such a course of events has the power to “limit the ability of corals to deposit their limestone skeletons,” and “[compromise] their ability to form reefs [in the future].” The aftermath of ocean acidification is a hazardous possibility, slowly transforming into reality. The difference in chemical composition as a direct result of acidification disrupts biological processes in fish and other marine wildlife, especially during the developmental stages of younger plants and animals.

The report compiled by the GBRF introduces a research project in which a group of scientists aims to develop a ‘framework’ for strategies to mitigate further harm. Their four-level project includes acknowledging carbonate chemistry, studying organisms’ responses to varying levels of acidity, and exploring the use of buffers to combat increased oxygen levels, while developing a large-scale, long-term strategy that can be implemented to reverse the ocean acidification process.


Coral Bleaching

In their fact sheet, although briefly mentioned, the GBRF acknowledges the process of coral bleaching. Coral bleaching is a natural reaction adopted by corals during events of immense stress. When water temperatures get to an irritating level or changes in light occur, corals will release algae, known as zooxanthellae, from within their tissues. This expulsion alters the color of the coral itself, changing it to white, hence the term ‘bleaching’. Many corals have survived bleaching events, but they can be dangerous and they have forced the death of a number of coral species. 

In 2005, a wave of coral bleaching enveloped half of the entire coral population in the Carribean under U.S. territory, causing the greatest mass bleaching and coral death event over the past two decades. Outcomes like this threaten not only corals themselves, but also the animals that live in them. Certain fish and creatures have a natural dependency on corals to sustain life and large scale destruction of those corals inadvertently affect those animals too. Additionally, larger predators that rely on these fish as a food source, such as sharks, are worse off. This creates a threatening domino effect in local ecosystems that can destroy them over time. 

It is important to understand that although climate change (as a consequence of human action) is a significant contributor to these risks, there are still direct forms of impact via human interference that deserve an equal degree of acknowledgment.


Water Quality

Another threat to the health of the Great Barrier Reef is none other than the decreasing quality of the water around which they exist. The GBRF identifies two issues as being harmful to the resilience of the reef: 1) the increase in sediment and contaminants in runoff and 2) increasing seawater temperature and acidity. The effects of which include “higher algal growth, a build-up of pollutants in sediments and marine species, reduced light, and smothered corals.” The more concentrated the water is with various nutrients, the more drastic the impact. Higher levels of concentrations can help the phytoplankton population grow, which in turn promotes organisms such as sponges that compete with coral. Extreme concentration lower the density of coral colonies, weakening their structural skeletons and making them more vulnerable to physical damage. In severe cases, elevated nutrient levels have capped fertilization rates and in some instances killed them.

Aside from nutrient concentrations, metal concentrations also play a role in the declining water quality of coral reefs. Although heavy metals are naturally found in these ecosystems through erosion, they have the power to disrupt ocean life once they reach threatening levels in the water. These metals, commonly identified as zinc, copper, and cadmium, have become increasingly present in coral waters and have posed toxic threats to their survival. Since they are sourced in agricultural and wastewater discharges, these undesired effects are a direct consequence of man-made industrialization and are thus more practical to alter.


Overfishing

Overfishing is widely regarded as one of the most potent forms of human neglect towards our environment. In the case of the Great Barrier Reef, overfishing has long been the root of biological disruption. Keystone species, which are species that are vital to their respective environment due to their impact on that environment and their abundance within it, have been and are continuing to be targetted. The Giant Triton, for example, is primarily being exploited along with various sharks that are captured for their fins and exotic fish that are used for food. Whether it be from trawling, anchoring, or netting, overfishing has proven to be a leading cause of habitat destruction in reefs.

Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

The four major sources of concern described above (ocean acidification, coral bleaching, declining water quality, and overfishing) play the biggest roles in forming the threat against coral life. These problems are putting the Great Barrier Reef through a situation in which no party wins, not the people, not aquatic life, not the economies, and most importantly, not the earth. 

Stay tuned for the next article, in which I will issue a call to action and suggest various solutions as well as inform on actions that have already been taken.

Published 12:15 AM EST


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