Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is coming back to life in remarkable ways after being damaged by warming waters, a new investigation has revealed.
The world heritage site is currently boasting its largest coral cover in decades. However, experts warned that the new growth was largely made up of a common, fast-growing but weak genus known as acropora, which could easily be lost.
Acropora is known for its branching colonies that resemble deer antlers and can grow in thickets covering large areas in a variety of colors.
It also plays a key role in reef building, providing a large percentage of the calcium carbonate structure, and is linked to popular imagery of the Great Barrier Reef, often depicted on postcards.
However, it is particularly vulnerable to storms and crown-of-thorns starfish, which feed on corals and often grow in “burst and fall” cycles.
The reef, which stretches nearly 2,400 kilometers along the coast of Queensland, has been heavily impacted by climate change in recent years and has undergone a series of “mass bleaching” events where stressed corals turn white.
However, scientists have revealed that the northern and central parts of the reef now have the most amount of coral cover since monitoring began 36 years ago.
A question mark remains over the exact reason for the reef’s sudden recovery, which suggests that the ecosystem has much greater resilience and resilience than previously thought.
It may have been helped by a relatively calm period in terms of cyclones and crown of thorns starfish, meaning progress could be undone by further disturbance.
Dr. Mike Emslie, research program leader at the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences, said the results are “good news” but there are still major concerns about the health of the reef.
Professor Terry Hughes, a marine scientist, said replacing the large, ancient, slow-growing corals that previously defined the reef is likely “no longer possible”, adding: corals before the next disturbance.”
Paul Hardisty, executive director of the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences, said: “These latest results demonstrate that the reef can still recover in periods free from intense disturbance.”
He also warned that the increased frequency of massive coral bleaching caused by climate change was “uncharted territory” for the reef and that a bleaching event earlier this year was the first to occur during a La Nina weather pattern.
Dr Maxine Newlands, a political scientist at James Cook University in Queensland, said the reef’s survival depends on a delicate balance.
“Politicians and policymakers cannot see this as a sign of a recovered reef, but as an indicator that more needs to be done,” she insisted.
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most spectacular marine environments in the world and attracts thousands of tourists a year in pre-pandemic times.
It has created around 64,000 jobs and generated around £3.5 billion a year for the Australian economy.
The reef has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1981 because of its scientific importance as one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet.
However, officials from the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, which inspected the reef earlier this year, accused Australian authorities of not doing enough to protect it.
There are fears it could be listed as “endangered”, which would reflect poorly on Australia’s environmental credentials and damage the image of one of the country’s top tourist attractions.