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Dying, But Not Dead Yet

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The largest living thing on planet Earth is almost dead.

The Great Barrier Reef is located off the coast of northeastern Australia, where wilderness and nature has thrived for nearly 500,000 years. However, National Geographic reported that fifty percent of the coral reef off of Cape York is now decimated.

The Great Barrier Reef, the largest and perhaps most famous coral reef system in the world, is in the process of dying due to factors influenced by humans, such as climate change. Since climatic patterns are shifting dramatically, global coral bleaching is becoming an even more prominent issue than it once was.

Coral bleaching occurs when warm ocean water causes the coral to pass its thermal threshold to the point that the coral expels tiny algae, zooxanthellae. Zooxanthellae is of paramount importance because of its symbiotic relationship with the coral; the coral’s tissues acts as a safe home for the algae and in return the algae supplies it with food and nutrients. The loss of the zooxanthellae results in the coral turning completely white (hence the term “coral bleaching”).  One of the cofactors in the partial death of the Great Barrier Reef is time, as coral bleaching is not fatal unless ocean water remains warm for an extensive period of time.

Ocean acidification is also a major contributor as well. The pH of the ocean, which is normally around a basic 8.2, has dropped by .1. This difference in number is by no means insignificant; it describes a 25% increase in acidity of the ocean water, disrupting oceanic ecosystems. As the atmospheric amounts of carbon dioxide increase due to the burning of fossil fuels, the ocean is forced to increase the amount of carbon dioxide it is absorbing. Once it is absorbed, the chemical compound reacts with the seawater to form carbonic acid, lowering the pH and making it more acidic. Unfortunately, these ramifications are irreversible.

Coral reefs are essential, as they provide shelter and nutrients for approximately 125,000 animal species that live underwater, which is why they earned the nickname “rainforest of the sea”. It also regulates the amount of carbon dioxide in the ocean. The absence of coral reefs would evidently point in the direction that marine life will suffer from chronic nutritional deficiencies as well as irregularities in the environment. Not only will the loss of coral reefs be damaging to underwater habitats but it will be damaging to humans as well. It protects shorelines from high tides and strong waves, especially during tropical storms. Economically, healthy reefs lead to good tourism rates; the commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs is an estimated $100 million. Surprisingly, scientists have found uses for it in medicine as well. A drug called ‘Halaven’ was introduced to the pharmaceutical industry in 2010 as a way to improve the survival among women who have metastases. Halaven is made of sea sponges, which prosper in coral reefs.

The alarming news has prompted numerous students to treasure nature even more. “This is such a disgrace to humanity,” said Senior Karishma Malholtra,”We’re failing to protect mother earth and its beauty. We need to learn how to leave it alone.”  This issue has allowed students to be pensive and realize that nature is not something that can magically reappear- once its gone, its gone. Viktoria Sims stated, “Most people don’t believe in it or think its a minor emergency. They don’t seem to understand the true impact the Great Barrier Reef has on our global life and ecosystems. If it dies, a lot of life dies with it.”

After all of the aforementioned information, it may seem that death is inevitable for the ‘rainforest of the sea’. Although one cannot rectify the damage inflicted, we can still attempt to prevent further damage. Unfortunately, having all citizens and businesses “go green” is a little unrealistic since some don’t even perceive climate change as a predicament or plainly do not believe climate change exists at all. However, changing small aspects of your life like using alternative energy can make a world of a difference. “As a student, I feel like I can help save the environment by using less water when showering and using the faucet and recycling paper and plastic”, asserted Laila Iqbal. Simple actions like conserving water, using eco-friendly products on your lawn (to reduce polluted runoff), and reducing the emission of fossil fuels by carpooling, walking, or riding a bike are ways one can protect and save the world’s treasured Great Barrier Reef. “There’s always things you can do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a student or an adult. You can use solar energy, make your own compost, or pick up litter wherever you see it”, added Vikitoria Sims, “I’ve always tried to do my part in being eco-friendly; I always recycle, never litter, and try to keep my electric use to a low general standard. The ways you can help are endless.”

Back in 1998, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13089, establishing the Coral Reef Task Force. This agency’s responsibility is to map and monitor the coral reef system as well as promoting conservation of the environment. The limitations of this agency are clear; it can monitor the causes of the coral reefs’ death but ultimately cannot control the amount of pollution contributed by buildings, cars, and homes or how fishermen exploit the environment by overfishing. Then in 2001, the United Nations addressed the contributing factors and secured funds for programs and agencies geared toward the preservation of coral reefs. As it turned out, governmental involvement did not help in the slightest because, once again, they cannot completely prohibit people from doing things that are environmentally unsafe. Currently, scientist Ruth Gates from the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology is attempting to breed the coral in the Great Barrier to have the ability to tolerate high-stress situations like drastic shifts in temperature. Through this technique, the coral will be able to survive coral bleaching. A similar solution is proposed by marine scientist Peter Harrison. He hopes that by flooding the damaged area with healthy coral sperm and eggs, the coral reef will regrow. Sadly, these solutions are still being researched and are not backed by evidence that it has actually repaired the Great Barrier Reef yet.  Outside of the United States, the Australian and Queensland government released a report in March, stating that they have made an admirable effort by investing 2 million dollars through the Reef 2050 Plan, and made substantial progress. The plan includes port legislation, a historic ban on the dumping of dredge materials, improvement of water quality, and focuses on monitoring the recovery of the bleached coral.

Online news sources and social media were the greatest assets to environmentalists by bringing attention to this tragic situation. Pictures of white, decrepit coral reefs flooded the Instagram and Facebook, sending an almost seismic shock- people pictured the Great Barrier Reef to look colorful and not like it was about to disintegrate at any second. Links of articles on Forbes, CNN, and the Guardian have been shared repeatedly, evidence that people are aware of the issue and we need to trust that we can all do our part in protecting what’s left.