Why Great Barrier Reef Is Important Amid Widespread Coral Bleaching

The Great Barrier Reef is still suffering extensive damage caused by warming oceans, a new report has warned, just days before United Nations officials arrive in Australia to decide whether the world heritage site should be placed on the "in danger" list.

The Great Barrier Reef is a vast natural habitat off the north-east coast of Australia, home to a globally unique array of thousands of of fish, coral and mollusc species—as well as the large green turtle, which is threatened with extinction.

Almost all the ecosystem, which covers around 135,000 square miles, was added to the UNESCO world heritage list in 1981. No other site contains as much biodiversity, according to the United Nations agency.

The Great Barrier Reef is also important for Australia's economy. It attracts more than 2 million tourists to the state of Queensland each year, contributing $6.4 billion to the country's economy and supporting 64,000 jobs, according to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

For the world at large, the Great Barrier Reef is a vital carbon sink. Its vegetation absorbs carbon from the atmosphere, helping to mitigate climate change.

About 99 percent of the reef lies within a marine park, an area managed by an Australian government agency called the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Over the past decade, the Great Barrier Reef has experienced severe "bleaching" events as a result of global warming. When this happens, the coral expel the algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn completely white—a sign that they are at risk of death.

Significant bleaching events were recorded in 2016, 2017 and 2020. A UNESCO report published in June 2021 said: "The ecosystem of the property has further deteriorated from poor to very poor, and the deterioration has been more rapid and widespread than was evident during the period 2009-2014."

Although the UNESCO report acknowledged the efforts of the Australian government to protect the site, it said "progress has been insufficient" and recommended that the Great Barrier Reef be placed on the UNESCO list of world heritage in danger—a proposal that was criticized by Australian ministers in 2021.

Now—just three days before a UNESCO delegation is set to visit and assess the reef's world heritage listing once again—the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has published its own report warning about new bleaching events.

The study states: "Bleaching has been detected across the Marine Park—it is widespread but variable, across multiple regions, ranging in impact from minor to severe."

Earlier this year, the Australian government published a separate study that described its management of the reef as "world leading." On January 28, it pledged an additional 1 billion Australian dollars ($740 million) for the protection of the Great Barrier Reef up to 2030.

Whether this will be enough to reassure UNESCO officials is set to be revealed soon.

Turtle swimming
A stock photo shows a green turtle swimming in the Great Barrier Reef. The huge natural habitat is under threat from global warming. Colin_Davis/Getty