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Is the Great Barrier Reef reviving – or dying? Here’s what’s happening beyond the headlines

Mike Emslie and colleagues write in The Conversation (9.8.23) about the health of the Great Barrier Reef, outlining what their latest marine research shows about the impacts of ocean warming and repeated coral bleaching.’The Great Barrier Reef is not dead. Nor is it in good health. The truth is complex. To understand what’s going on takes more than a headline.

‘For the last 37 years, our organisation has monitored the health of the world’s largest reef. Each year, we add our findings to our dataset, the Reef’s longest running and largest coverage. This lets us produce annual updates for the northern, central and southern regions of the Reef. That makes us perhaps the team best qualified to answer the question many people have – how is the Reef going?

‘Released today, this year’s update paints a complex picture. It wasn’t long ago the Great Barrier Reef was reeling from successive disturbances, ranging from marine heatwaves and coral bleaching to crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks and cyclone damage, with widespread death of many corals especially during the heatwaves of 2016 and 2017.

‘Since then, the Reef has rebounded. Generally cooler La Niña conditions mean hard corals have recovered significant ground, regrowing from very low levels after a decade of cumulative disturbances to record high levels in 2022 across two-thirds of the reef.

‘The Reef has shown an impressive ability to recover from widespread disturbances, when it gets a chance – it’s not all just bleaching and death. But it’s also true we’re heading towards a future where hotter water temperatures will likely cause bleaching every year, along with ongoing threats of cyclones and coral-eating starfish. Recovery requires reprieve – and those opportunities will diminish as climate change progresses.’

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