Half of the Great Barrier Reef has died since 2016 -- but Australia's $400 million attempt to save it doesn't address the main problem

  • Half of the coral reefs that make up Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have been killed off by searing heat waves that caused coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017.
  • The Australian government is investing $US379 million to improve water quality and save reefs.
  • But most experts think that because the plans don’t address climate change, they won’t be enough.

The coral reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia are some of the most spectacular and valuable environments on the planet.

But those reefs are dying. A full half of 3,863 coral reefs in the magnificent ecosystem were wiped out by catastrophic bleaching events caused by searing heat waves in 2016 and 2017.

To try to stop the destruction before the Great Barrier Reef – the largest, most extensive reef system in the world – is no more, the Australian government has announced that it plans to spend more than half a billion Australian dollars (about $US379 million USD) on improving water quality to protect coral reefs; reef restoration; and helping to fight predatory starfish.

But many experts think that since these initiatives don’t fight greenhouse gas emissions or climate change – the root cause of what’s killing coral reefs – they won’t be enough to save the fragile environment.

As coral reef researcher Terry Hughes, lead author of a recent study that showed the dire condition of the Great Barrier Reef, said on Twitter, “We’re not going to fix the challenge of climate change for coral reefs by killing a few starfish in Queensland.”

Most experts think restoration efforts could play a large role in bringing reefs back from the brink, but if they don’t solve the most serious problems reefs face, it could all be for nothing.

“We’re creating a lot of structure that wasn’t there before, but it is by no means a long-term solution,” Dalton Hesley, a scientist working on reef restoration in the Caribbean at the University of Miami, told Business Insider for a recent story on coral restoration efforts.

Great barrier reefShutterstock

The Great Barrier Reef

Saving the Great Barrier Reef is essential for Australia. As Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg said in a statement, the reefs provide at $US6.4 billion a year and 64,000 jobs to the Australian economy – numbers that may underestimate the reefs’ value.

But the coral reefs off the coast of Australia have been subjected to the same stresses that are damaging coral reefs around the globe.

Approximately half of the world’s coral has died in the past 30 years. At present rates, 60% of all coral reefs are expected to be highly or critically threatened, and 98% of reefs will be exposed to potentially fatal conditions every year.

It’s possible that coral reefs around the world could be mostly wiped out by 2050 or soon after.

The Great Barrier Reef has been damaged by agricultural runoff from farms and by coral-devouring crown-of-thorns starfish, which liquify coral organisms.

These are problems the new initiative by the government tries to address, by coming up with ways to get farmers to modify agricultural practices.

But most of the damage to the Great Barrier Reef comes from the burning of fossil fuels that have warmed the planet. Earth’s oceans have absorbed the majority of that heat (about 90% of it so far).

As waters rapidly warm, corals lose the components that give them colour and help them produce food in a process called bleaching. That slows their growth and makes them vulnerable to algae, disease, and death. Increased ocean acidification caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide causes bleaching, too.

It’s these bleaching events that have rapidly wiped out so much of the Great Barrier Reef. The same conditions can be seen in the Caribbean and other sites around the world.

While the restoration efforts being pursued in Australia, which include plans to help find corals that are resilient to climate stress and efforts to replant coral larvae in some sections, could make a difference, they won’t be enough to save the overall structure if waters continue to warm and get more acidic.

As the Australian Academy of Science said on Twitter, investment in reefs is welcome, but addressing underlying issues is essential.

The end of reefs?

The biggest criticism of this major new investment in Australia is that it doesn’t address climate change. While it’s investing a huge sum of money in the reef, the Australian government is also proposing a new coal mine not far from the Great Barrier Reef.

Even the efforts included in the proposal have been criticised.

Jon Brodie, a professor at James Cook University’s Coral Reef Studies Centre of Excellence, told Reuters that the money was just a continuation of already-unsuccessful programs.

“It’s not working, it’s not achieving major water quality improvements,” he said.

Most reef experts agree that whether we can save reefs depends on when can stabilise climate change. If humans make that happen soon, more reef systems will be able to be preserved. Then – using restoration techniques – they could eventually be restored to some degree.

But as Hughes and co-authors wrote in the recent Great Barrier Reef study, as it stands, warming will eventually kill reefs and transform oceans.

“The most likely scenario, therefore, is that coral reefs throughout the tropics will continue to degrade over the current century until climate change stabilizes, allowing remnant populations to reorganise into novel, heat-tolerant reef assemblages,” the authors wrote.

“The large-scale loss of functionally diverse corals is a harbinger of further radical shifts in the condition and dynamics of all ecosystems, reinforcing the need for risk assessment of ecosystem collapse.”

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