The Future of the Great Barrier Reef

Suger cane harvesting in Queensland.
Motorized traffic, one of many sources of carbon dioxide emissions in the world.
Healthy corals.
A dead coral reef.
Map of Australia, with Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef located in the northeast.

As explained in the previous chapter, rising sea temperatures cause algae to become unproductive and thereby contribute to corals dying. Still, rising sea temperatures is not the only reason why corals are dying. Other things that degrade the Great Barrier Reef and other coral reefs are overfishing, pollution and acidification. The latter, which is a lowering of the ocean’s pH level, makes it more difficult for corals to build their limestone bodies, a phenomenon caused by oceans absorbing a part of the world’s aerial emissions of carbon dioxide.

Possible solutions

In analyzing the effects of acidification and other influences, reports from environmental organizations conclude that the Great Barrier Reef has been severely degraded over the last few decades. In only a few decades more, they project, the reef could be irreversibly lost, an estimation that is heart-breaking to nature lovers. However, not everybody has given up hope of saving the reef, especially not environmental lobbying groups.

Aware that international agreements to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, if enforced, could slow the rate of coral degradation, environmental lobbying groups push hard for the implementation of these agreements. Moreover, in laboratories, researchers work to find heat-resilient algae that could replace the non-heat resilient algae that live inside corals today. Nevertheless, no sustainable solution to save the Great Barrier Reef has yet been effectuated, and while the clock is ticking, all over the world, political and economic decisions may work against a sustainable future for Australia’s underwater wonder.

Different interests and priorities

To focus on the relevant political and economic decision making in Australia that may affect the country’s emblematic reef, we see that the government tries to keep nationally important industries healthy and profitable. However, many important industries in, for example, the coal and sugar business sectors cannot easily coexist harmoniously with the Great Barrier Reef because their emissions of carbon dioxide, their use of fertilizers and their need for sea ports near the reef all threaten the longevity of corals. The Australian people’s need of an income, in other words, thwarts the ambition to keep ocean life healthy, a type of economic dilemma repeating itself throughout the world. Therefore, what may remain as one of very few possibilities to try to save some of the Great Barrier Reef, if emission treaties fail and researchers draw blanks, is to heed the suggestion to desperately pump cold water into certain small parts of it.