The Great Barrier Reef has lost half of its coral

The Great Barrier Reef has lost half of its coral
The Great Barrier Reef has lost half of its coral

There is no time to lose – we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible

Study authors

“The loss of large corals is important because they all give birth to babies – they are responsible for a large part of the breeding that is done each year on adult corals,” said Professor Hughes.

The climate crisis has led to marine heat waves. Research found greater deterioration in coral colonies in the northern and central Great Barrier Reef after mass coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017.

Tote Koralle am Great Barrier Reef. Recognition:Tony Chase

The southern part of the reef was also exposed to record-breaking temperatures and severe bleaching in early 2020 (this data was not included in the study).

Corals rely on algae known as zooxanthellae to provide most of their energy and much of their vibrant color. When corals are exposed to prolonged abnormal heat – measured on so-called degree warming days – they begin to drive the algae out, resulting in mass bleaching.

Branched and table-shaped corals provide shelter and habitat for reef dwellers such as fish, and their loss reduces the abundance of fish and the productivity of coral reef fishing.

Bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef coral near Cooktown in March 2020.Recognition:About Terry Hughes

“These types of coral are three-dimensional – they make the nooks and crannies that are essential to the biodiversity of the coral reef,” said Professor Hughes.

The researchers found that better data on coral demographics is needed to understand how their populations are changing.

“We used to think that the Great Barrier Reef was protected by its sheer size – but our results show that even the largest and relatively well-protected reef system in the world is increasingly vulnerable and in decline,” said Professor Hughes.


The authors are concerned about the shrinking gap between bleaching events as corals have little opportunity to recover.

“There’s no time to lose – we have to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible,” the research report says.

Global temperature increases would have to stabilize between 1.5 and two degrees for the reef to persist, even if it were very different from now, said Professor Hughes. “If it’s three or four degrees, forget it.”

That year, February saw the highest monthly sea surface temperatures ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef since the Bureau of Meteorology began records in 1900.

The warming ocean affects reefs worldwide, including off the coast of Brazil, in parts of Melanesia and Indonesia.

Miki Perkins is the senior journalist and environmental reporter for The Age.

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