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The Great Barrier Reef isn't dead (yet)

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Scientists disagree with an Outside Magazine obit

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This week, Outside Magazine published an obituary of the Great Barrier Reef and it quickly went viral. "The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness," the obituary began. "It was 25 million years old." It turns out scientists aren’t very happy that the world’s largest coral reef system was proclaimed dead — mainly because it isn’t.

The Great Barrier Reef is definitely in a dire situation, but "we’re very far from an obituary," Russell Brainard, chief of the Coral Reef Ecosystem Program at NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, told The Huffington Post. And publishing an article that inaccurately claims the reef is dead can make people who don’t know any better lose hope and think nothing else can be done.

"The message should be that it isn’t too late for Australia to lift its game and better protect the GBR, not we should all give up because the GBR is supposedly dead," Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, told The Huffington Post.

The Great Barrier Reef, located off the coast of Queensland, Australia, stretches for 1,429 miles over an area of about 133,000 square miles. It is home to more than 400 kinds of coral, over 1,500 species of tropical fish, more than 200 types of birds, and around 20 types of reptiles including sea turtles. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1981.

Bleached coral in February 2016 at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef.
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

Since 1998, the GBR has experienced three significant mass bleachings, according to The Guardian. Bleaching occurs when the colorful algae that live inside the corals are expelled because the water is too warm, either because of powerful El Niños or climate change. (Bleaching can also be caused by other stressors, like cold water or extreme low tides.) Without the algae, which provides the coral 90 percent of its energy, the coral becomes white and eventually starves. This year, as much as 93 percent of the GBR was found to suffer from some level of bleaching, according to a study by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

Despite the bleak news, the Great Barrier Reef is not completely dead. In fact, a survey conducted between March and June of this year showed that 22 percent of the coral in the GBR died because of the 2016 bleaching event, according to preliminary findings published yesterday. That means more than half of it is still alive, and can recover. "These natural systems do have some ability to be resilient and bounce back," Brainard told The Huffington Post.

The Australian government released its Reef 2050 Plan in March 2015 to help save the Great Barrier Reef, which includes plans for improving water quality to help corals recover from bleaching. (A report, however, showed that improving water quality will cost $8.2 billion in the next decade, 10 times what the local and federal governments currently spend.) The GBR can also be saved by rerouting boats around the reef, limiting fertilizer and sewage runoff that damage the coral, and by avoid overfishing key animals that eat excessive algae.

But if water temperatures continue to rise, then the Great Barrier Reef might indeed die. Then the Outside Magazine obituary will become true.