Great Barrier Reef's Bleaching Crisis Reaches 'Severe' Level, As Photos Reveal Widespread Coral Death

“The new stills ... show large sections of coral drained of all color and fighting for survival.”
Coral bleaching at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef. 
Coral bleaching at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef. 

Australia is raising the alarm: Swathes of the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef system, are dying.

On Sunday, WWF Australia released shocking footage and photographs of bleached coral around Lizard Island, located in the northern part of the reef.

“The new video and stills are very concerning and show large sections of coral drained of all color and fighting for survival,” WWF spokesperson Richard Leck said in a statement. 

Earlier in the day, Australia's Environment Minister Greg Hunt had raised the reef's threat level to its highest level after surveying parts of it by plane

Bleaching in the northernmost quarter of the reef is a particular “cause for concern,” Hunt said. Experts say bleaching in that area is both widespread and severe

“I'm witnessing the death of a very large part of this reef system. I'm extremely worried and upset,” said veteran marine researcher Justin Marshall from the northern section of the reef last week.

Coral bleaching at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef.
Coral bleaching at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef.

Soaring temperatures have been blamed for the reef’s bleaching crisis.

Russell Reichelt, chairman of the Great Barrier Reef marine park authority, told The Guardian that corals in the reef’s north, where surface sea temperatures surpassed 90 degrees in February, were “effectively bathed in warm water for months, creating heat stress that they could no longer cope with.”

“We still have many more reefs to survey to gauge the full impact of bleaching, however, unfortunately, the further north we go from Cooktown [in Queensland] the more coral mortality we’re finding,” he said.

Earlier this month, researchers at Lizard Island, located about 50 miles north of Cooktown, said the area was suffering from the worst coral bleaching event in at least 15 years.

“We do notice a bit of minor bleaching most summers, but this year is exceptional,” researcher Lyle Vail told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “Unfortunately we've got the perfect storm conditions for coral bleaching. At the moment we've got brilliant clear sunny skies, calm conditions, little tidal movement. A lot of that hot water on top of the reef flat is just staying there and cooking the coral.” 

Coral bleaching at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef.
Coral bleaching at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef.

In light of the severe bleaching event, Hunt has announced plans for increased monitoring of the Great Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; as well as programs to tackle run-off pollution and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, which prey on coral polyps.

However, the minister has been criticized this week for his failure to pinpoint climate change as a major cause of the bleaching.

“Being able to monitor the state of affected coral is important -- Mr Hunt’s contribution on that front is welcome -- but it is not enough,” said Queensland environment minister, Steven Miles, per The Guardian. “Where is his plan to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas pollution? February sent records tumbling -- the new hottest month on record after July 2015.” 

Activists are pushing Australia to address the issue of climate change -- particularly its role in the fossil fuel industry -- as it tackles the bleaching crisis. 

“The pictures we’re seeing coming out of the northern Great Barrier Reef are devastating,” Shani Tager of Greenpeace Australia said in a statement. “The Queensland and federal Governments must see this as a red alert and act accordingly ... The best way of protecting our Reef from climate change, is to do everything we can to stop burning fossil fuels, which means leaving them in the ground.”

The Great Barrier Reef is not the only reef system in the world under threat from climate change. The world is currently in the the midst of the longest-ever global coral bleaching event -- a crisis that began in 2014 and could extend to 2017