The Great Barrier Reef, located on the eastern coast of the continent now generally referred to as “Australia,” first started forming sometime right around 25 million years ago. Throughout its long history it has continually been the biggest, or one of the biggest, living structures in the world — and has also been home to myriad numbers of other organisms and whole ecosystems.
This long life has seemingly been coming to an end over the last few decades, as a result of increasingly common and extensive bleaching events caused by warming seas (and other factors) and increasingly acidic waters.
With the course of the established industrial civilization apparently now set before us, owing to the inertia that is present in its systems and social structures, it’s highly likely that the reef will cease to exist in anything like its current form within the very near future.
I recently came across an interesting “obituary” for the Great Barrier Reef that seems worth reposting some excerpts from:
The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old.
For most of its life, the reef was the world’s largest living structure, and the only one visible from space. It was 1,400 miles long, with 2,900 individual reefs and 1,050 islands. In total area, it was larger than the United Kingdom, and it contained more biodiversity than all of Europe combined. It harbored 1,625 species of fish, 3,000 species of mollusk, 450 species of coral, 220 species of birds, and 30 species of whales and dolphins. Among its many other achievements, the reef was home to one of the world’s largest populations of dugong and the largest breeding ground of green turtles.
The reef was born on the eastern coast of the continent of Australia during the Miocene epoch. Its first 24.99 million years were seemingly happy ones, marked by overall growth. It was formed by corals, which are tiny anemone-like animals that secrete shell to form colonies of millions of individuals. Its complex, sheltered structure came to comprise the most important habit in the ocean. As sea levels rose and fell through the ages, the reef built itself into a vast labyrinth of shallow-water reefs and atolls extending 140 miles off the Australian coast and ending in an outer wall that plunged half a mile into the abyss. With such extraordinary diversity of life and landscape, it provided some of the most thrilling marine adventures on earth to humans who visited. Its otherworldly colors and patterns will be sorely missed.
To say the reef was an extremely active member of its community is an understatement. The surrounding ecological community wouldn’t have existed without it. Its generous spirit was immediately evident 60,000 years ago, when the first humans reached Australia from Asia during a time of much lower sea levels. At that time, the upper portions of the reef comprised limestone cliffs and innumerable caves lining a resource-rich coast. Charlie Veron, longtime chief scientist for the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Great Barrier Reef’s most passionate champion (he personally discovered 20% of the world’s coral species), called the reef in that era a “Stone Age Utopia.” Aboriginal clans hunted and fished its waters and cays for millennia, and continued to do so right up to its demise.
Yet that didn’t stop the Queensland government from attempting to lease nearly the entire reef to oil and mining companies in the 1960s — a move that gave birth to Australia’s first conservation movement and a decade-long “Save the Reef” campaign that culminated in the 1975 creation of Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which restricted fishing, shipping, and development in the reef and seemed to ensure its survival. In his 2008 book, A Reef in Time, Veron wrote that back then he might have ended his book about the reef with “a heartwarming bromide: ‘And now we can rest assured that future generations will treasure this great wilderness area for all time.’” But, he continued: “Today, as we are coming to grips with the influence that humans are having on the world’s environments, it will come as no surprise that I am unable to write anything remotely like that ending.”
The entire piece is worth a read, so I encourage you to click over.
The Great Barrier Reef was also, of course, predeceased by more-distant relatives: the enormous old-growth forests which covered much of the world until recently, including much of what’s now the Middle East and Europe; most of the world’s megafauna mammals, including the European Lion (which went extinct during the days of the Roman Empire); most of the world’s largest birds, including the Moa, Elephant Birds, and the largest eagle (by far) to have ever existed, the Haast’s Eagle; and by a vast number of others as well.
Here’s yet another reminder to switch to clean technology faster than we are doing, and to cut energy use altogether when it isn’t needed or useful.