By: HANNAH DEMCHAK
Recently, the world was struck with the news that the Great Barrier Reef was dead. While this may be partially true, there is still hope.
The Great Barrier Reef is not completely dead, yet. According to National Geographic, the reef is only at a 50 percent mortally wounded.
Scientists and researchers believe that the reef is dying off at an exponential rate due to abnormal weather patterns such as El Niño and global warming, which can cause coral bleaching.
Peter Bushnell, a professor of biological sciences at IU South Bend, sheds some light on how coral grows and what bleaching is.
“The organisms living inside of the coral polyps incorporate algae, creating a great symbiotic relationship. When the coral tissue actually has algae in it, the algae takes sunlight, converts it into sugar and completes photosynthesis, and then it gives the coral polyp the nutrients it needs to use. Because the coral is a living organism, it generates carbon dioxide for the algae for photosynthesis,” said Bushnell.
Normal, healthy coral is usually a brown shade when algae are present. The bleaching turns the coral a noticeably different, bone-white color. The coral and the algae ultimately need each other for survival. When temperatures rise this can create a crises for the coral reef.
“During bad times when temperatures get really high, a coral polyp will expel the algae from their tissues. The algae turns a polyp a different color, and it bleaches it,” said Bushnell.
The cause of the coral bleaching is El Niño, a series of irregular temperature changes at the sea surface in the Pacific Ocean. El Niño can affect weather patterns in numerous ways, causing heavy rainfall, drought, or abnormally warm or cold winters. This pattern typically only occurs for a year or two until it dissipates and returns back to its normal cool temperature.
According to Bushnell, these trade winds that come with El Niño blow massive amounts of water that alter the ocean’s temperature. This weather trend is believed to continue throughout the rest of this year, causing one of the biggest bleaching episodes the Great Barrier Reef has ever experienced.
“The Great Barrier Reef is huge. It is not dead,” said Bushnell. “There are some places that are more heavily impacted than others. The deeper the corals are, the less they are subjected to these temperatures. It is my understanding that some areas are affected much worse than others in the reef.”