Great Barrier Reef threatened by 'worst bleaching event in history'

The reef is suffering a fifth mass bleaching event in eight years.

If you’re already dismayed by the state of Australia’s increasingly not so Great Barrier Reef, then maybe don’t read on. The UNESCO World Heritage site has suffered its fifth mass bleaching event in eight years, according to the Australian Government.

At the turn of the century mass bleachings were rare, with the first occurring in 1998 and then in 2002. But the frequency is ramping up, and events have cooked the reef in 2016, 2017, 2020, 2022 and 2024.

Responding to today’s announcement by the tax-payer funded Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority (GBRMA), World Wide Fund for Nature Australia said it's clear global heating is “putting tremendous pressure on the reef”, and it’s particularly concerned the bleaching looks likely to reach the southern end.

"WWF is very concerned that this bleaching event is unfolding in an area where corals have not been previously exposed to these extreme temperatures. Unless we see a significant drop off in temperatures in the next few weeks, the risk of significant coral mortality is high,” its head of oceans Richard Leck said.

The Great Barrier Reef was once a sea of colour. These photos show that's no longer the case.
The Great Barrier Reef was once a sea of colour, but large areas of coral are now being impacted by widespread bleaching. Source: Getty/AAP

Today’s announcement was not unexpected – it came three days after the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced the entirety of the Southern Hemisphere was set to bleach in 2024. "We are literally sitting on the cusp of the worst bleaching event in the history of the planet," NOAA ecologist ecologist Derek Manzello told Reuters.

RELATED: What is coral bleaching?

Government urged to protect Great Barrier Reef

Several non-profits responded to the GBRMA announcement, urging the Albanese government to do more to tackle climate change. Since coming to office, it successfully prevented the reef from being added to the “in danger” list of UNESCO World Heritage sites by committing to better protect it.

“The world is watching how the Albanese government will respond to the first mass bleaching of the Reef on its watch,” Australian Marine Conservation Society campaigner Dr Lissa Schindler said.

“If it’s serious about its commitment to UNESCO to protect the reef, then it must lift its emissions reduction target in line with keeping global warming to 1.5C – a critical threshold for coral reefs. That means the Albanese government must commit to net-zero emissions by 2035 and stop approving new fossil fuel projects.”

Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO David Ritter said claims Australia is taking the health of the reef serious “ring hollow”. He questioned the government's ongoing support of big polluting project’s like Woodside’s gas expansion on the Burrup Hub.

“We know that the climate crisis is driving deadly marine heatwaves and devastating our marine ecosystems, but the frequency and scale at which these mass bleaching events are now occurring is frightening — every summer we're holding our breath,” he said.

Love Australia's weird and wonderful environment? Get our new newsletter showcasing the week’s best stories.