Coral cover of The Great Barrier Reef is at record high

3 mins
09 Aug 2022
Coral cover and The Great Barrier Reef

With a comeback bigger than Crocs

image Diogo Hungria via Unsplash

words Eve Walker

Despite the scorching heatwaves this summer, accompanied by what feels like an endless stream of climate change woes, a new report by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) has some actually good environmental news. According to the study, two-thirds of Australia's Great Barrier Reef has reached its greatest amount of coral cover for almost 40 years.

The Great Barrier Reef spans 2,300 kilometres and is made up of more than 3,000 individual reefs. As an exceptionally diverse ecosystem, it is home to more than 12,000 animal species, plus many more thousand species of marine fauna and flora, meaning it must be protected at all costs.

Climate change has devastated the reef, which has received an “in-danger” warning from the World Heritage Committee. While we have been sweltering in record high temperatures and longing for nothing more than to jump into the ocean, it can be easy to forget that underwater heat waves exist too. From coral mass bleaching, to severe tropical cyclones, to poor water quality, the future of the reef and its ecosystem has been looking very dire. Until now.

Routine monitoring is key to preserving the reef, with AIMS collating and delivering information on its condition since 1985. The new report shows promising data: coral cover has increased on most reefs.

Near Cape Grenville and Princess Charlotte Bay in the northern sector, coral has bounced back from bleaching, with two reefs having more than 75% cover. In the central sector, where coral cover has historically been lower than in the north and south, coral cover is now at a region-wide high, sitting at 33%. In the late 1980s coral cover surpassed 40% in the southern sector, dropping to an abysmal region-wide low of 12% in 2011 after Cyclone Hamish. Despite recent outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, coral cover in this area is still relatively high at 34%.

“Every summer the Reef is at risk of temperature stress, bleaching and potentially mortality,” AIMS CEO Paul Hardisty said in a press release. “The 2020 and 2022 bleaching events, while extensive, didn't reach the intensity of the 2016 and 2017 events and, as a result, we have seen less mortality.”

While this may seem like a small win, senior AIMS researcher Mike Emslie told The Washington Post, these findings show that the reef “is still vibrant and still resilient, and it can bounce back from disturbances if it gets the chance.”

Unfortunately, it is important to remember that the fight to protect vital ecosystems such as The Great Barrier Reef is far from over. The increase in coral cover is from dominant coral species that thrive after disturbances like mass bleaching. Ironically, these corals are very susceptible to disturbances themselves, and often die after a few years.

Nevertheless, we’ll take the good news however it comes. Calling the reef healthy is definitely an overstatement, but the data shows the perseverance of nature, and that recovery of The Great Barrier Reef is possible if we continue to push for change.

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