Investigation of Australia's northern Great Barrier Reef has revealed widespread damage caused by 2016's coral bleaching event.
At the beginning of 2016, Australian Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie said the Great Barrier Reef was thriving, the Independent reports. But by May 2016, researchers found more than one-third of the world’s largest reef system had been killed and 93 percent of corals on independent reefs had expelled algae living in their tissues in a deadly condition known as coral bleaching.
"After the bleaching event in May, 60 percent of what we saw was bleached very white,” McKenzie said. “Another 19-20 percent was covered in sludgy brown algae. Even of what remained healthy, some looked a bit on edge.”
She added, “When we went back a few weeks ago [September 2016] to see if they had recovered or died, quite a large proportion had died.”
McKenzie estimated around one-half of the bleached coral researchers investigated off the coast of Port Douglas was dead, and fewer species of fish were living on the reef due to the reduced coral population.
Professor Tim Flannery, a researcher who visited the reef in September, told ABC "If it [the reef] was a person, it would be on life support."
A 2015 study reports that reefs can fully recover even after massive bleaching events, but it’s a slow and steady process that requires stable conditions, according to ThinkProgress.
“If there are repeated bleaching events over a short time frame, it will be difficult for it to recover,” McKenzie told the Independent.
The value of tourism on the reef is estimated to be around $6 billion, and employs over 65,000 people. John Rumney, a tourism operator who has been visiting the reef for 15 years, said tourists were still visiting the reef, but “there is definitely a major concern for its long-term future."
The reef was trending on social media on Oct. 14, after Outside Online posted an obituary for the 25-million-year-old organism, presumably to increase awareness. Researchers have cautioned people around the world not to give up on the Great Barrier Reef just yet, and to take ecologically conscious steps to invest in its survival.
Bleaching is caused by a rise in sea temperatures, which is linked to climate change.
"It’s very illustrative that climate change is happening now," McKenzie said. "It’s not a future issue, it’s having an effect now on an enormous ecosystem."
She added, "It’s not too late, but we need to act to protect what’s left of the reef and give it the best chance of survival into the future.”