A Natural Wonder in Peril: The Downward Spiral of the Great Barrier Reef and What Must Be Done to Protect It

By Emily Cade


This research essay details information about the Great Barrier Reef and the ways in which it is under threat due to climate change. The research includes general information and facts about the Great Barrier Reef, such as its location, functions, and the wildlife that lives within it. The research also includes coral bleaching; the biggest issue currently plaguing the Great Barrier Reef. It concludes by touching on the decision to keep the Great Barrier Reef off of the endangered sites list, and why scientists believe the reef should be recognized as an endangered site. The research was conducted by looking at multiple credible sources regarding the Great Barrier Reef and climate change.

Keywords: The Great Barrier Reef, coral, coral bleaching, climate change, endangered

A Natural Wonder in Peril

The Great Barrier Reef, widely considered one of the world’s seven natural wonders, is famous for its exquisite beauty and rich, diverse wildlife. Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to visit the Reef and see the wonder personally, but as a consequence of climate change, we have forever lost the privilege of seeing it in its prime. With each passing day, the Reef continues to dwindle away, and while some conservation efforts are being made, it may be too little too late. The World Heritage Committee’s continuous refusal to list the GBR as an endangered site is a significant blow to the hope of keeping the Reef alive. If the Great Barrier Reef is to receive the support it desperately needs, it is imperative that the World Heritage Committee officially recognize it as an endangered site.

Located off the coast of Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef is the crown jewel of Australia. Over 3,000 individual corals coexist and dwell in the Coral Sea in an almost unfathomable array of shapes and colors. The GBR is so massive that it is visible even from space. Beyond being a vast, breathtaking sight, the Reef is a natural ecosystem that serves many vital roles, both for its inhabitants and the world. According to the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority, nearly 6,000 living creatures call the Reef home, including sharks, rays, whales, dolphins, jellyfish, worms, mollusks, turtles, and of course corals. Many of these organisms rely on the Reef for food, shelter, and breeding grounds. The Reef is also home to a huge amount of algae, which produce over half of Earth’s oxygen. The BBC (2020) reports that since 1995, half of the corals residing in the GBR have died. As the Reef suffers, so does everything in it.

One of the biggest threats the Great barrier Reef faces is a phenomenon called “coral bleaching.” According to the National Ocean Service, coral bleaching occurs when intense stress from changes such as temperature causes coral to release algae called zooxanthellae, turning the organisms completely white and “bleaching” them. Zooxanthellae have a symbiotic relationship with corals, providing them with both a source of food and their striking colors. When the algae leave the coral, the coral loses key nutrients and in some cases, dies. One of the main causes of coral bleaching is rising water temperatures, largely thanks to global warming. Obviously, a widescale coral bleaching outbreak would result in disaster for the Great Barrier Reef. Sadly, that very misfortune has occurred as recently as 2020.

In the last five years, the Great Barrier Reef has suffered not one, not two, but three mass bleaching events. The most recent outbreak occurred in April of 2020 and left 25% of the reef bleached. This number indicates that 60% of coral living in the reef has now suffered bleaching (Readfearn, 2020.) With over half of the GBR experiencing the effects of coral bleaching, it is clear that action must be taken to turn the situation around. However, the chief scientist at the Great barrier Reef Marine Park, David Wachenfeld, fears these rather depressing statistics may actually lead to inaction. Wachenfeld (2020) says “My greatest fear is that people will lose hope for the reef. Without hope, there’s no action.” It is important to know that the Great Barrier Reef, while at great risk, is not dead. While it will require swift and meaningful action to keep this marvel alive, it is not an impossible task.

The biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef is coral bleaching, which is caused by global warming. Unfortunately, many scientists are of the belief that we are past the point of no return when it comes to the global warming crisis. Our best option now is mitigation and adaptation; to postpone destruction for as long as possible and make changes along with our world. Seeing as we likely aren’t bringing global warming to a stop anytime soon, what else can be done to slow the spread of coral bleaching? An interesting project could serve as a possible solution. “Coral gardening” is a coral restoration process that is conducted by The Reef Restoration Foundation. According to Lara Esposito (2020) of the Climate Institute “…small pieces of coral are taken from Fitzroy Island and suspended from a tree-like structure to promote quick growth.” Within the first seven months of the project, there were already approximately 400 corals in the Foundation’s coral garden. Creative solutions like these could serve to preserve at least some parts of the GBR. Although tragically, it is very unlikely that the Great Barrier Reef will ever be returned to its former glory, there is still hope that it can adapt and live on.

Of course, creative solutions and community action are wonderful things, but the Great barrier Reef also desperately needs government support. There are several conservation measures that have been put in place by the Australian government, but the Reef is still in serious trouble and many scientists believe these efforts fall short. What these scientists are calling for is an official recognition of the Great Barrier Reef as an endangered site, which is a title the Reef has been denied. In 2017, the United Nations World Heritage Committee voted against recognizing the GBR as endangered. While the World Heritage Committee acknowledged that the Reef was at risk, they seemed to believe that Australia’s conservation efforts were sufficient. The decision likely was made to protect the Australian government from political and tourism struggles (Galluci, 2017.) According to the Australia Pacific campaigner for Greenpeace, Alix Foster Vander Elst, “An endangerment listing, as tragic as that would be, would be a more realistic representation of the state of the reef and would at least force the federal government to act on climate change.” An endangerment listing would make it clear that the reef is in real trouble, and the Australian government would have to be more proactive about its conservation.

As reported by Al Jazeera (2021), in 2021, the World Heritage Committee once again voted against endangered status, enraging scientists and environmental activists. David Ritter, the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific spoke out his frustration with the decision, stating “This is not an achievement- it is a day of infamy for the Australian Government.” Year after year, the Reef continues to suffer and continues to be denied all of the support it could potentially be receiving- the support it desperately needs.  The true reality of the Great Barrier Reef appears to be far grimmer than the reality both the Australian and International governments are seeing, and their denial of the endangered status of the Reef shows that.

To deny that the Great Barrier Reef is in serious waters would be turning a blind eye to a beautiful and vital part of our planet. The Reef provides revenue and culture for the Australian people and serves as a home and haven for such a vast and wonderful array of plants and animals, many of which would be unable to survive outside of the Reef. To simply allow it to fade away and die would cause a cruel and unjust domino effect to be set into motion. The death of the Great Barrier Reef would mean the death of an unfathomable amount of marine life, as well as the loss of an Australian landmark and international treasure. It’s true that the Great Barrier Reef has seen better days, but until we can say we’ve done everything in our power to keep it alive, we cannot give up on it. This is why it is so important that the World Heritage Committee takes action and recognizes the Reef as endangered. With that title, the GBR would be able to receive greater aid than ever before. Even with current and well-meaning conservation efforts, the Reef needs every little bit of help it can be afforded. The Great Barrier Reef is still alive and intact and still waiting for help. Until we’ve exhausted all possible methods, we cannot lose hope for this beautiful natural wonder.


Al Jazeera. (2021, July 24). Great Barrier Reef: Australia avoids UNESCO downgrade | Environment News | Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/7/24/great-barrier-reef-avoids-unesco-in-danger-listing

Esposito, L. (n.d.). Will the Great Barrier Reef Survive Climate Change? Climate Institute. Retrieved March 20, 2022, from http://climate.org/will-the-great-barrier-reef-survive-climate-change/

Gallucci, M. (2017, July 6). The very much threatened Great Barrier Reef is not “in danger,” UNESCO says. Mashable. https://mashable.com/article/great-barrier-reef-unesco-in-danger

Great Barrier Reef Foundation. (n.d.-a). Climate change. Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from https://www.barrierreef.org/the-reef/threats/climate-change

Great Barrier Reef Foundation. (n.d.-b). Why do we need coral reefs? Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from https://www.barrierreef.org/news/blog/why-do-we-need-coral-reefs

Great Barrier Reef has lost half of its corals since 1995. (2020, October 14). BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-54533971

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. (n.d.). Reef facts. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from https://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/the-reef/reef-facts

Greening Australia. (2020, November 20). Improving water quality to help the Great Barrier Reef. Greening Australia. https://www.greeningaustralia.org.au/improving-water-quality-to-help-the-great-barrier-reef/

National Ocean Service. (n.d.). What is coral bleaching? Retrieved February 27, 2022, from https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/coral_bleach.html

Readfearn, G. (2021, November 29). ‘Confronting’: Great Barrier Reef faces frequent extreme coral bleaching at 2C heating, research finds. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/30/confronting-great-barrier-reef-faces-frequent-extreme-coral-bleaching-at-2c-heating-research-finds

Readfearn, Graham & Wachenfeld, David. (2020, April 6). Great Barrier Reef’s third mass bleaching in five years is the most widespread yet. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/07/great-barrier-reefs-third-mass-bleaching-in-five-years-the-most-widespread-ever




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