Is the Great Barrier Reef Dead?

The Rundown of the Reef Situation

Thomas Werner 

Under the Radar

October 23rd, 2016



One of our world’s natural wonders, the Great Barrier Reef, is on the brink of destruction. However, it is not dead--yet. Despite what some viral reports may claim, our Reef is still kicking, and we can still save it.


Coral lives a mutualistic life with colorful photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae, which gives coral its vibrant color. The coral gives the algae a home and the needed compounds for photosynthesis, and the algae gives the coral food from carbohydrates produced in photosynthesis. The two organisms rely on each other to live “Corals have a limited temperature range within which they can live. When it gets too hot, they get stressed out—and this relationship with the algae goes sour. The tiny algae are ejected from the corals, turning them white, thus the term ‘bleached,’” explains Stephanie Wear,Conservancy Director of Coral Reef Conservation. Without the algae, the coral will die unless it can reabsorb the algae quickly. Due to increasing warming of the oceans, bleaching occurs on a large scale, resulting in the death of almost a quarter of the Great Barrier Reef (22%).  


So what is the culprit for this massive coral bleaching effect? The biggest blame falls on global warming, but there are other factors as well. El Niño, a temporary climate cycle that warms up the Pacific ocean by a few degrees Celsius, has been hitting hard recently. There have been 30 El Niño events since 1900, five of which have been crammed into the last 14 years. Bleaching is also caused by changes in the saltiness of the water, unusually bright sunlight, pollution, disease, and sedimentation.


The death of all this coral does not bode well for our future. This reticent animal benefits its ecosystems as well as human beings in a multitude of ways. Coral protects shorelines, gives a home to 25% of marine animals, draws in tourists (and their money), helps fishing industries thrive, and could possibly hold the secrets to a medical revolution.


The reef is in critical danger, but viral claims perpetuating its death are dangerous. “There is a lot we can do to minimize climate change and we need to get going on that. To say reefs are finished and we can’t do anything about it isn’t the message we need going forward,” says Russell Brainard, head of the coral reef ecosystem Program at Noaa’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. “There is a lot we can do to minimize climate change and we need to get going on that. To say reefs are finished and we can’t do anything about it isn’t the message we need going forward.” The reef is still alive--and it is up to us to keep it that way. Estimates show that with the track our environment is on, the abnormal conditions causing bleaching will be the norm for the reef in 50 years.


We all can do our part to preserve this vital cog of our ecosystem, even if you live thousands of miles away. provides a comprehensive list of what we can do:


Conserve water: The less water you use, the less runoff and wastewater will pollute our oceans.


Help reduce pollution: Walk, bike or ride the bus. Fossil fuel emissions from cars and industry raise lead to ocean warming which causes mass-bleaching of corals and can lead to widespread destruction of reefs.


Research what you put on your lawn: Although you may live thousands of miles from a coral reef ecosystem, these products flow into the water system, pollute the ocean, and can harm coral reefs and marine life.


Dispose of your trash properly: Don't leave unwanted fishing lines or nets in the water or on the beach. Any kind of litter pollutes the water and can harm the reef and the fish.


Support reef-friendly businesses: Ask the fishing, boating, hotel, aquarium, dive or snorkeling operators how they protect the reef. Be sure they care for the living reef ecosystem and ask if the organization responsible is part of a coral reef ecosystem management effort.


Plant a tree: Trees reduce runoff into the oceans. You will also contribute to reversing the warming of our planet and the rising temperatures of our oceans. Help us Plant a Billion.


Practice safe and responsible diving and snorkeling: Do not touch the reef or anchor your boat on the reef. Contact with the coral will damage the delicate coral animals, and anchoring on the reef can kill it, so look for sandy bottom or use moorings if available.


Volunteer for a coral reef cleanup: You don't live near a coral reef? Then do what many people do with their vacation: visit a coral reef. Spend an afternoon enjoying the beauty of one of the most diverse ecosystems on the Earth.


Contact your government representatives: Demand they take action to protect coral reefs, stop sewage pollution of our oceans, expand marine protected areas and take steps to reverse global warming.


Spread the word: Remember your own excitement at learning how important the planet's coral reefs are to us and the intricate global ecosystem. Share this excitement and encourage others to get involved.