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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Great Barrier Reef: dead, dying, or still vibrant?

    Courtesy Martha Gilliland
    Martha Gilliland, a retired UA professor of geoscience, rests at a lookout of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia on July 20.

    A story in Outside Magazine  created a significant uproar last month. Rowan Jacobsen’s Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 Million BC-2016)  laments the death of the reef and examines the factors that contributed to its demise. As Jacobsen wrote, “the Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old.” 

    This story came as a shock to readers, many of whom recently saw a beautiful Great Barrier Reef depicted in Disney Pixar’s “Finding Dory.” Pre-physiology sophomore Lauren Cadwell reacted in a way representative of many who were only just informed of the Reef’s illness by Outside Magazine.

    “I was shocked and devastated to hear that,” Cadwell said. “I don’t understand, it was so big and so full of life and now it’s gone.” 

    But is the Great Barrier Reef really dead? Martha Gilliland, a retired UA professor of hydrology and water resources, visited the Great Barrier Reef this summer. 

    “Recent science shows that a fifth of the coral is dead,” Gilliland said. “It’s mostly in the northern part, which is less serious than if it were spotty. Reefs can recover from bleaching, but it takes a while. There has been bleaching in the past and reefs have recovered, but the people doing research on this are pretty skeptical that it will recover because of the general trend of warming caused by climate change.”

    Jacobsen’s story aims to shock the public into caring. 

    “I’m not opposed to shock and awe—it’s probably a good thing,” Gilliand said. “Naysayers are becoming fewer and fewer and I think it adds to that trend. I think the stories about coral reef are some of the most powerful stories there are about the impacts of climate change.”

    RELATED: Baby it’s hot outside: UA talks climate change and El Niño effects

    The governments of Australia and Queensland released the First Reef 2050 Plan in September. The report included a $2 billion contribution to coral recovery and plans for new protective legislation that will guard against future damage. While large donations and protective legislation will undoubtedly aid in the effort to save the reef, there is a much larger issue at work. 

    “There are two parts to it, but certainly one dominates: The carbon emission in the atmosphere. Ocean acidification also causes trouble, making a [healthy coral into a] skeleton,” Gilliland said.

    To some who aren’t captivated by the idea of snorkeling, the question still remains: Why should I care? According to Gilliland, if you were to add up all the reefs, they would make up about 1 percent of the ocean. 

    “However, they have in those habitats 25 percent of marine species … This is a huge, complex food chain that eventually provides a food source for people. It is really important for the biodiversity of the planet.”

    RELATED: UA research shows sea levels predict global temp changes

    Despite the severity of recent numbers on carbon emissions, Gilliland has a bright perspective.

    “I believe in the capacity of ecosystems to right themselves after big events like hurricanes and oil spills … The big variable here is how fast will the temperature rise. And that is what makes me feel pessimistic about the reefs’ recovery. However, I am very optimistic about the Paris [climate change] Agreements. They now have enough signatures, including the U.S. and China who together produce 38 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. The U.S. has to take real leadership on this.”

    Follow Chandler Donald on Twitter.

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