Not altogether dead, but…

The Great Barrier Reef is not dead, yet. It’s in trouble but not dead. So far.

Perhaps you have read its obituary by writer Rowan Jacobsen on the website Outside Online.

No, but I saw some headlines, probably inspired by that, so I hit the googles.

“For those of us in the business of studying and understanding what coral resilience means, the article very much misses the mark,” said Kim Cobb, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “It’s not too late for the Great Barrier Reef, and people who think that have a really profound misconception about what we know and don’t know about coral resilience.”

Cobb spoke to the LA Times about the state of the world’s largest reef system, and why there is reason for both concern and hope.

The Great Barrier Reef had a massive bleaching event, but coral reefs can recover from those. (The trouble is, they can recover from them if the water temperature cools, and that doesn’t seem to be the trend…but maybe Cobb will tell us something hopeful.)

Coral is an animal, and the animal exists in symbiosis with photosynthetic algae. The algae provides food for the coral in exchange for a great home. But when the water gets too warm, the algae become chemically destructive to the coral.

When that happens, the coral convulses and spits out puffs of algae to protect itself. That removes all the color from the coral tissue which is transparent, allowing you to see right through to the underlying skeleton. So you are not necessarily seeing dead coral, you’re really just seeing clear coral without its algae.

But that’s still worrying because algae is the food source, so if it’s gone too long the coral will starve to death.

But, if the water temperature comes back down, it will welcome the algae back. The key is that the water temperature change has to be relatively quick.

Ice cubes?

It was El Niño events that turned the temperature up for nine months, which is a long time to starve.

Has the Great Barrier Reef been through anything like this before?

It has had very severe bleaching events associated with large El Ninos like we had last year, but the problem is we are seeing baseline ocean temperatures getting warmer every year. When you pile a strong El Nino on top of this ever warming trend, you get more extreme and more prolonged bleaching episodes.

That’s what I was thinking – the rising baseline temperatures. So then we get to the part where she explains why it doesn’t mean total coral death, and it’s not all that optimistic.

So how can you remain hopeful about the fate of Great Barrier Reef and other reefs in the Pacific?

I work on a research site in the Christmas Islands that is literally smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and which was much more devastated than the Great Barrier Reef. It was worse off than any reef in the world with up to 85% mortality. But even in the face of that whole-scale destruction, we saw individual corals that were still alive, looking like nothing had happened.

I cling to that. I know from my own site that there is a lot more resilience baked into the system then we can hope to understand right now and that out of the rubble will come a reef that may not look exactly like it looked before, but may be better adapted for future temperature change.

Or not.

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