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Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, in some form, has existed for up to a half a million years.
Known today as the largest structure on Earth made up of living organisms, the incredible beauty stretches over 1,000 miles across the Coral Sea.
Its more modern form has been in place for 6,000 years or more, meaning it has already outlived the Renaissance, multiple world wars, and the golden age of boy bands.
But it could be nearing the end.
When you think of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef, you probably think of something that looks like this — vibrant colors surrounded by sea life.
Lately, it’s been looking more and more like this.
It is really, really NOT supposed to look like this.
This whitening process is called coral bleaching, and it’s what happens when the coral expels algae and plants that live inside of its tissue.
Those plants help feed the coral and keep it alive; they also give it its brilliant color.
Step one of bleaching: The coral turns bright white. Step two: It dies.
Bleaching can happen for a lot of reasons, usually from warming water temperatures and pollutants.
2016 was officially one of the warmest years on record, and 2017 is well on its way toward taking the title. So, yeah … not good.
And while coral has shown that it sometimes can recover quite well from bleaching incidents, scientists fear the reef may not be able to bounce back from recent trauma.
Water quality expert Jon Brodie told The Guardian the reef has reached a “terminal stage” after several years of warming waters and poor water quality, with up to two-thirds of the reef’s total structure hanging on for dear life.
Plenty of organizations are still fighting to preserve as much of the reef as possible, but the harsh truth is that it may be too late.
If this is really the end for the Great Barrier Reef, it won’t just be the loss of something beautiful.
Massive coral structures like Australia’s reef support a wide variety of sea life, which, if lost, could have a devastating ripple effect on the aquatic ecosystem and even the fishing industry.
Though many experts say it’s too late to stop further destruction of the reef, and in fact, some have predicted for years it was doomed all along, it’s not too late to learn from our failings in protecting it.
We need to invest in better water quality for our oceans, and we need to pour everything we’ve got into slowing global warming. If a massive living structure that has weathered thousands of years of abuse can’t survive it, the reef’s death should at least be the wake-up call we need to finally take action.