In Depth

Fact Check: The truth behind the damage to the Great Barrier Reef

Does climate change mean the famous ecosystem is in danger of disappearing forever? The Week finds the truth

Scientists and environmentalists are increasingly concerned about the health of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, but there are arguments that reports of its demise have been exaggerated. What are the facts?

Who says what?

According to Greenpeace, the reef, a UN World Heritage site, is deteriorating at an alarming rate and could disappear forever.

"Climate change is fuelling warmer waters, cooking the reef alive," says campaigner Alix Foster Vander Elst. "Once a coral is dead, it's gone forever."

However, the Australian government, among others, dispute the severity of the damage.

"We have to put the facts on the table," environment minister Josh Frydenberg said in December. "The reef is not dead, it's not dying. It's resilient, it's healthy."

Breitbart columnist James Delingpole, a climate change sceptic, has gone even further and says reports of widespread coral death are "classic fake news" being spouted by liberal media outlets.

The reef is "not going to disappear," he wrote in the right-wing publication yesterday. "That's just a #fakefakenews lie designed to promote the climate alarmist agenda."

What are the facts?

Coral is extremely sensitive to shifts in ocean temperature, scientists say, meaning global warming poses a huge risk to the Great Barrier Reef.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that warmer sea temperatures brought on by climate change are now the primary cause of coral bleaching, which leaves it vulnerable to disease and death.

"If the stress-caused bleaching is not severe, coral have been known to recover," the agency reports.

"If the algae loss is prolonged and the stress continues, coral eventually dies."

A study published in the scientific journal Nature last week revealed that a major temperature spike in 2016 led to the worst-ever bleaching event, devastating swathes of coral. The chances of the northern reef returning to its previous state "are slim given the scale of damage", said researchers from Australia's James Cook University.

Professor Terry Hughes, one of the study's authors, said: "We didn't expect to see this level of destruction to the Great Barrier Reef for another 30 years."

The impact from the latest bleaching event is still unfolding, but experts at the Australian Institute of Marine Science estimate that overall coral mortality is at 22 per cent for the entire Great Barrier Reef.

Who's right?

The scientific facts are indisputable: the Great Barrier Reef is under severe threat from climate change and could disappear if urgent action isn't taken to combat rising sea temperatures.

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