The Great Barrier Reef’s long-term outlook has been downgraded to "very poor" in a bleak new report that warns that the window of opportunity for action is now.

Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef's outlook is downgraded to "very poor" ©Edward Haylan/Shutterstock

In a 2016 documentary for the Guardian, award-winning writer and environmentalist Naomi Klein travelled to the Great Barrier Reef with her then four-year-old son Toma to witness the damage a massive coral bleaching event, driven by climate change, had inflicted on the diminishing reef. In the documentary, she noted that "climate change is already here, and kids are on the frontlines." She feared that the world we're passing on to future generations will be stripped of the beauty we've taken for granted as we lose animal, plant and coral species to human-driven climate change.

Three years later the outlook is even more stark. Indeed, researchers report this month that rising sea temperatures and extreme events linked to climate change, such as the marine heatwaves that caused the mass coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, remain the biggest threat to Australia's Great Barrier Reef. In a five-year report, authored by the government's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, rising sea temperatures was confirmed as the biggest threat to the reef. As a result, for the first time ever, its outlook has been officially downgraded from "poor" to "very poor." 

The report says: "the significant and large-scale impacts from record-breaking sea surface temperatures have resulted in coral reef habitat transitioning from poor to very poor condition. Climate change is escalating and is the most significant threat to the region's long-term outlook. Significant global action to address climate change is critical to slowing deterioration of the reef's ecosystem and heritage values and supporting recovery."

Threats to the reef are "multiple, cumulative and increasing." While, rising sea temperatures is the biggest threat, other hazards include coastal development, illegal fishing and poor water quality as a result of farming pollution.

Coralfish swimming at Great Barrier Reef
Beaked Coralfish swimming at Great Barrier Reef ©Tanya Puntti/Shutterstock

"Without additional local, national and global action on the greatest threats, the overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef’s ecosystem will remain very poor, with continuing consequences for its heritage values also," the report says. "The window of opportunity to improve the reef’s long-term future is now."

Unesco's World Heritage Committee may include the reef to its list of sites that are "in danger."

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