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Is the Great Barrier Reef really dead ?

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Reports of the natural wonder's demise may be somewhat exaggerated.


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Except it's not true.

For the past two years, Hughes has led a team of scientists in both aerial and underwater surveys of the reef. It took a while — the Great Barrier Reef is made up of more than 3,000 individual reefs stretching as long as the entire West Coast of the United States. Their findings, published in March in the journal Nature, estimate that a third of the coral died along the entire Great Barrier Reef between March and November 2016, due to warmer-than-average water temperatures.

"Close to half of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef have died in a period of about 18 months," Hughes says. "This is the new normal."

Hughes is calling on everyone who studies and protects the world's coral reefs to adjust to this new normal. He says coral reef management has always focused on restoring reefs to their pristine condition — before the oceans began to warm.

"And we argue that's no longer possible," says Hughes. "What we should be aiming for is keeping the reefs functional


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More recent findings...

It was obvious last year that the corals on many reefs were likely to die, but now formal scientific assessments are coming in. The paper in Nature documents vast coral bleaching in 2016 along a 500-mile section of the reef north of Cairns, a city on Australia’s eastern coast.

Bleaching indicates that corals are under heat stress, but they do not always die and cooler water can help them recover. Subsequent surveys of the Great Barrier Reef, conducted late last year after the deadline for inclusion in the Nature paper, documented that extensive patches of reef had in fact died, and would not be likely to recover soon, if at all.

Professor Hughes led those surveys. He said that he and his students cried when he showed them maps of the damage, which he had calculated in part by flying low in small planes and helicopters.

His aerial surveys, combined with underwater measurements, found that 67 percent of the corals had died in a long stretch north of Port Douglas, and in patches, the mortality reached 83 percent.


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