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  • Writer's pictureGregory Andrews

Bleaching Point: When the Great Barrier Reef Can No Longer Bounce Back

A major coral bleaching event is currently occurring on the Great Barrier Reef. By the time it's over, it could be the worst on record. Back in 2021, marine biologists led by Professor Terry Hughes from James Cook University published important research on the impacts of repeated coral bleaching on the Reef. They found that, under relentless siege from climate change, it was losing its capacity to bounce back from repeated coral bleaching events.

So with bleaching events no longer just occasional disturbances but a recurrent nightmare for the Great Barrier Reef and its delicate ecosystems, what does this mean for its future?

Corals are the architects and builders of reefs. They suffer bleaching when the symbiotic relationship with their algae, the source of their colour and energy, breaks down under the stress of increased ocean temperatures. What the 2021 report showed was an alarming emergent pattern of bleaching and susceptibility across the Great Barrier Reef. Regions previously spared from bleaching were emerging as particularly vulnerable in subsequent heatwaves. Spatial refuges from bleaching that gave the Reef resilience were shrinking. Increasingly shorter intervals between each bleaching event were also stripping the Reef of its capacity to bounce back. In a nutshell, repeated bleaching, like that happening now, was akin to repeated heart attacks for the Reef, successively weakening its capacity to recover.

The Great Barrier Reef can only take so much bleaching before its resilience is eroded entirely. And its fate - and indeed, coral reefs worldwide - is not just a concern for marine biologists or environmentalists; it's a harbinger of the broader impacts of climate change. Coral reefs underpin ocean health, fisheries, and coastal protection. Their death risks an unraveling of global marine ecosystems and food security which depends on the oceans.

The time for half-measures, greenwashing and defensive talking points is well over. What's required now is bold, decisive action to curb the emissions heating our planet and pushing ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef to the brink. Australia has a responsibility to act.

In the words of Professor Hughes, "the only long-term way to protect corals on the Great Barrier Reef and elsewhere is to rapidly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions".

You can take action by calling Environment Minister Plibersek on (02) 6277 7920 or writing via to advise that saving the Great Barrier Reef requires our Government to act on climate change. Of course, Australia's domestic emissions must come down. But ceasing Australia's massive coal and gas exports and subsidies is also essential.

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