Opinion

Past, Present, and Future of the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef, which is still recovering from last years bleaching event, is now in the midst of another large-scale stress event. What can you do for the Reef?

The Great Barrier Reef is dying…Again.

It seems that every news article in the recent past on the health of the GBR has announced the death or impending doom of the GBR. Last year, I wrote a blog entitled It’s Time: Action on the Great Barrier Reef is needed now on the bleaching event that was unfolding in the GBR. A few weeks ago, Prof Terry Hughes (Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies), along with SEI Key Researchers Prof. Maria Byrne and A/Prof. William Figueira and other leading coral reef experts in Australia published these findings in the scientific journal Nature.

Their conclusions are sobering.

Professor Hughes found that within the last 40 years, there have been three mass bleaching events (1998, 2002, and 2016) across tropical coral reefs worldwide due to increasing ocean temperatures. By far, the worst bleaching event occurred last year in summer 2016, with greater than 91% of the reefs surveyed experiencing some form of bleaching. Furthermore, Prof. Hughes concludes even the best management of GBR offers little resistance to recurring sever bleaching events caused by ocean warming.

Even more concerning, a year later, another bleaching event is currently unfolding. The significance of this cannot be overstated. Consecutive bleaching events have never been recorded, and the GBR, which is still recovering from last years bleaching event, is now in the midst of another large-scale stress event.

Endings are a time for reflection.

I’ve had the privilege to blog for SEI for the past few years while completing a PhD at the University of Sydney. During my PhD, I made a total of 9 trips and spent just under a year at the One Tree Island Research Station and Lizard Island Research Station on Great Barrier Reef. In that time, I’ve witnessed first-hand the contrasts of the destruction caused by Cyclone Nathan on the pristine reefs at Lizard Island, but also the beauty of new life, diving to observe the coral mass spawning phenomenon.

As I was finishing my PhD last year, I had an opportunity to reflect on the incredible experiences during my time in Sydney.

I got my start in science at the University of California, Davis working in a geology laboratory sorting small organisms named foraminifera, also the basis for my PhD thesis. When I began, I had little experience in science, but a keen interest in asking questions. My first mentor was an incredible woman named Dr. Ann Russell, who taught me evidence-based research that is based on asking questions.

I mention this aspect of my past because the overwhelming evidence to date supports the fact that human emissions are causing the oceans to warm and become more acidic at an unprecedented rate, the direct cause of the severe bleaching events occurring on the GBR. Despite passionate pleas to government officials and leaders of Australia, a railway line for Australia’s largest coal mine in the Galilee Basin was quietly approved at the end of last year, seen as the last hurdle. It should come as no surprise then, that building Australia’s largest coal mine, and protecting the GBR are completely at odds with each other. The consensus of urgency felt by coral reef scientists in Australia is evident, and can be best summed as:

 “Consequently, immediate global action to curb future warming is essential to secure a future for coral reefs.” –Prof. Hughes

 How can you help?

  1. Get Educated. There are a wide number of resources on issues facing coral reefs.
  2. Think Globally, Act Locally. Previous blogs highlight ways to do such things.
  3. Contact your local MPs and get involved. Request meetings, and make your views known.

I’d like to end what is likely my last blog on a positive note.

I am currently sitting in an office overlooking Cooks Bay in Moorea, French Polynesia working in my new position as Postdoctoral Fellow. I first visited Moorea in 2011 as a masters student, at the height of a crown-of-thorns outbreak which wiped out almost all the corals on the reef. As a result, fish populations and local fisheries collapsed. Six years on, the reefs have recovered, and reefs have returned to a healthy state.

My deepest hope that in six years time, the GBR will have recovered in similar fashion, but action is needed. Now.


Steve Doo is currently an National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at California State University, Northridge. He recently completed his PhD at the University of Sydney, studying the impacts of climate change on the ecology and physiology of large benthic foraminifera, important sand producers on the Great Barrier Reef. Steve’s fieldwork at the University of Sydney was mostly based at One Tree and Lizard Islands. Currently, Steve is performing fieldwork in French Polynesia on the long-term response of coral reef communities to ocean acidification and warming.

Top Image: Beyond Coal & Gas ‘Coral bleaching at Lizard Island’ – FlickrCommons