Great Barrier Reef hit by record bleaching, Australian authorities say

Australia’s spectacular Great Barrier Reef is experiencing its worst bleaching event on record, officials reported on Wednesday.

This underwater photo taken on April 5, 2024, shows fish swimming near bleached and dead coral around Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef, located 270 kilometers north of the city of Cairns, Australia. /CFP

This underwater photo taken on April 5, 2024, shows fish swimming near bleached and dead coral around Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef, located 270 kilometers north of the city of Cairns, Australia. /CFP

Often dubbed the world’s largest living structure, the Great Barrier Reef is a 2,300-kilometer long expanse, home to a stunning array of biodiversity including more than 600 types of coral and 1,625 fish species.

But aerial surveys conducted by the scientists show about 730 out of more than 1,000 reefs spanning the Great Barrier Reef have bleached, the authority said. 

“The cumulative impacts experienced across the reef this summer have been higher than previous summers,” the federally-funded Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) said in a statement.

This event is the fifth mass bleaching on the reef in the past eight years. 

Bleaching occurs when coral expel microscopic algae, known as zooxanthellae, to survive. If high temperatures persist, the coral can eventually turn white and die.

GBRMPA’s chief scientist Roger Beeden said climate change posed the biggest threat to reefs globally. 

“The Great Barrier Reef is an incredible ecosystem, and while it has shown its resilience time and time again, this summer has been particularly challenging,” he said.

Recovery in doubt

Lizard Island, a small slice of tropical paradise off Australia’s northeast tip that is usually teaming with vibrant coral life, now resembles a watery grave.

Marine biologist Anne Hoggett, who has lived and worked on Lizard Island for 33 years, said when she first arrived, coral bleaching only occurred every decade or so. 

Now, it is happening every year, she said, with about 80 percent of vulnerable Acropora corals on the Lizard Island reef suffering bleaching this summer.

“We don’t know yet if they’ve already sustained too much damage to recover or not,” Hoggett said.

The Australian government plans to invest Aus$5 billion ($3.2 billion) from 2014 to 2030 to protect the reef by improving water quality, reducing the effects of climate change and protecting threatened species.

The country is one of the world’s largest gas and coal exporters and has only recently set targets to become carbon neutral.

Whether these efforts will be enough for the reef to keep its World Heritage status will be examined by UNESCO later this year.

(Cover: This aerial photo taken on April 4, 2024, shows bleached and dead coral around Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef, located 270 kilometers north of the city of Cairns, Australia. /CFP)

Source(s): AFP