SYDNEY — Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef is undergoing yet another devastating mass coral bleaching event, the fourth since 2016, the country’s marine park authority said Friday.
It’s the sixth mass bleaching since 1998 and the first time the reef has been hit by such a disaster during a La Niña year, which typically brings cooler weather. Scientists who had hoped the season would give coral time to recover said the latest mass bleaching was a “grim” sign for the future.
Bleaching happens most often when delicate coral polyps are effectively cooked by unusually warm water. Bleached coral, which turns a sickly white, can recover if water temperatures return to normal. But if the warm water lingers for too long, large swaths of reefs can die.
“It is important to note that bleached coral is stressed but still alive,” the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said in a statement. “If conditions moderate, bleached corals can recover from this stress, as was the case in 2020 when there was very low coral mortality associated with a mass bleaching event.”
Still, bleaching has happened again and again on the Great Barrier Reef since 2016, and a study published in November found that just 2% of the structure had escaped bleaching over the previous 30 years. That figure is shocking, as the Great Barrier is the largest living structure on the planet, stretching nearly 1,500 miles and comprising more than 3,000 individual reefs.
The Australian government has faced fierce criticism from scientists and environmental groups in recent years over its attempts to protect the reef with injections of cash. Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a $700 million package to protect the structure in January, bolstering a $1.4 billion effort called the Reef 2050 plan.
At the same time, Australia has largely failed to address the root cause of the reef’s demise: rapidly warming waters linked to climate change. Morrison has embraced the coal and gas industry, vowing to support mining for “decades to come,” and Australia’s emissions strategies are ranked as “highly inefficient” by the group Climate Action Tracker.
“I make no apologies for Australia’s standing up for our national interests, whether they be our security interests or economic interests,” Morrison said in November at the United Nations’ climate conference. “We have a balanced plan to achieve net zero by 2050, but we’re not going to make rural and regional Australians pay for that.”
A United Nations team is currently in Australia to assess the reef’s status on the UNESCO world heritage list. The Australian government heavily lobbied to delay calls that the reef be listed as “in danger” last year. A meeting on that matter will now take place in June, after a pivotal Australian federal election.
Environmental groups said the timing of the bleaching announcement was extraordinary.
“The beloved, vibrant colors of the Great Barrier Reef are being replaced by ghostly white corals,” Greenpeace Australia campaigner Martin Zavan said in a statement. “It is vital that the UN mission currently surveying the health of the Reef is able to witness and record this climate damage firsthand, and not just the postcard-perfect locations the Morrison government chooses to showcase.”