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The Great Barrier Reef: Its Form, Biodiversity and Connection with Humanity

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The Great Barrier Reef is an extraordinarily diverse and complex network of organisms that each serve a purpose to form a massive ecosystem with features that are vastly different than all others. The Reef sits parallel to the cost of Queensland, Australia where it has existed in different forms for over 500,000 years. This paper will talk about how the reef formed, as well as what made the Reef what it is today, and what its biodiversity consists of, while focusing on the human effects, both positive and negative, on the Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most vast and diverse ecosystems on earth. This officially recognized national park and world heritage site is home to thousands of different species of fish and algae which has thrived in its most current state for 6-8 thousand years. Today, in a comparative blink of an eye, we have brought this healthy and growing ecosystem to a state of decline; between the CO2 pollution, destructive, and unnecessary over-fishing, and Climate change, humans have killed off large sections of the Reef, by causing a “bleaching” of the Reef, and will likely kill off more until effective means of pollution control around the Reef can be deployed. There are many current initiatives to protect the Great Barrier Reef, including much of it being considered protected, which guards the Reef against any sort of fishing, as well as creating areas for research and tracking of endangered species that live within the Reef. Research can only go so far though, because agriculture and development will continue to kill the Great Barrier Reef, and unless we find a way to reduce pollution and climate change, my generation could be the one that sees the extinction of this incredible ecosystem unless a proper government is put in place to protect it.

What is the Great Barrier Reef?

At 1,600 miles long, and 133,000 square miles of total ocean coverage parallel to the coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is a network of over 2,900 different interconnected coral reefs. Researchers have mapped out the Great Barrier Reef into 70 separate bioregions, which is an ecologically and geologically defined region (Australian Government, 2016). Together, these reefs make up one major ecosystem that is the largest living structure on earth. The Reef is home to a network of over 9,000 different species of marine life that each play a vital role in providing a necessary part that keeps the ecosystem going (Nova, 2016). The Great Barrier Reef is a type of coral reef formation called a barrier reef, which is characterized by parallel structures to a coastline, as well as its tendency to grow taller than the ocean surface, making it a barrier for marine travel.

The Reef is one of the world most touristic marine locations, receiving over 2 million tourists per year, and has an estimated intrinsic value of over 300 billion dollars, as well as providing over 60,000 jobs to local Australians who provide tours of the Reef’s natural geography, which is full of cliffs and valleys, as well as gentle slopes and massive plateaus, making it a go-to for both inexperienced and experienced divers. Along with the scuba diving, the Reef’s touristic appeal has made it a large area for vacation, with many hotels and other tourist-focused locations across its nearby shore, a full economy, bringing the country almost 6 billion dollars a year, has been developed around it, making the goals of protecting the Reef compete with the goals of economic stability (Deloitte Access Economics, 2013).

In 1981, the Great Barrier Reef was put on a list for world heritage sites, or areas that are to be protected and kept untouched by development, which helped with providing funding as well as interest from researchers to understand more about the reef and how we can preserve it. The goal is to allow future generations to be able to see a monument of the earths evolution before industrialization began reconstructing the planet. In 2004, it also became one of Australia’s national parks, making 33.3% of the total Reef protected against fishing, as well as making that area open for researchers to follow specific endangered species who live in the reef (Australian Government and Queensland Government, 2015). The Great Barrier Reef, even with all its protection, has already gone through a great deal of damaging events, and is declining in a way that has brought enough concern that obituaries have been famously written for it.

What is polluting the Great Barrier Reef. The industrial revolution sparked an explosion of modern technology and development, but grew quicker then we as humans could understand. Today, we are only just beginning to understand the repercussions of our uncontrollably rapid industrialization. Many of the man-made pollution effecting oceans across the world are only increased in intensity when relating them to the Great Barrier Reef (Skwirk, 2016). One of the many things effect the Great barrier is CO2. The levels of CO2 in the atmosphere today have reached historical highs, with the highest reading being 401ppm, recorded October of 2016. Carbon Dioxide in the ocean causes the pH level to drop, or get more acidic. Ocean acidification prevents the coral in the Reef to not be able to absorb calcium carbonate in the water; Calcium carbonate is what give the skeleton, that is the Inner-Reef, its strength, without it the structure starts to dissolve. To drop the Carbon Dioxide levels, fossil fuel consumption must decrease, and more renewable forms of energy will need to replace it, because a non-renewable form of energy is nuclear power, which is a big cause in another man-made pollutant effecting the Great Barrier Reef (Skwirk, 2016).

Nuclear reactors produce no CO2, or no other forms of air pollutants, other than depleted uranium, the only thing that they give off is heat, lots of heat. Heat is often pumped into the air, but sometimes nuclear plants will pump the CO2 into the nearby oceans, or rivers that flow into the oceans; heat can also get absorbed into the ocean from the atmosphere, and as the atmospheres temperature rise, so does the oceans temperature (Australian Government, 2016). The Great Barrier Reef Outlook report of 2009 reported rising ocean temperatures to be the most harmful long term issue facing the Great Barrier Reef. Rising temperatures, along with extreme amounts of CO2 in the ocean, is to blame for an event called “bleaching.” Coral bleaching is when the coral polyps get stressed, which means that the water conditions, such as temperature or acidity, are no longer in there range of tolerance. When a coral polyp gets stressed, it ejects an algae that symbiotically grows inside of the corals, called zooxanthellae, which has evolved to live within the coral. the zooxanthellae that lives inside the coral is the main source of food, as well as their color, so when the coral get rid of the algae inside of them, they lose their coloring, making them white in color, thus the name bleaching. This also leads to starvation and eventual death of the coral, and generally happens in to large areas all at once; Since the industrial revolution, there have been 8 major bleaching’s, the most recent one being this year.

Another serious threat the Great Barrier Reef is sediment, or runoff. Industrialization and expansion is creating large amounts of loose dirt and debris that is causing erosion of lake and river edges. This as well as rising water levels are causing an incredible amount of sediment, or solids such as sand and dirt, to get deposited into lakes and rivers, where they end up in the ocean. Sediment causes several negative impacts on the Great Barrier Reef, the first one being cloudy, or murky water (Australian Institute of Marine Science, 2016). The Reef is not only known for its beauty under water, but when above it too, which means that clouded water due to sediment influences the intrinsic value, and could damage the economy that surrounds it if it were to get out of hand. Murky water also effects the plants itself, the coral that makes up the Reef relies on photosensitive algae for food, and murky water can drastically reduce how much light can get through the water. Another problem with sediment is that it can bring bacteria or chemicals that the coral is unfamiliar with; Coral disease is a large reason why bleaching events happen so rapidly, once the corals get stressed, they become much more susceptible to disease (Australian Institute of Marine Science, 2016).

What is happening to help the Reef. There are many reasons why the Great Barrier Reef needs protection. Between the effects of climate change, CO2 in the atmosphere, and sediment, the Reef is in more danger than ever before. As the danger grows, more and more extreme measures need to be taken to ensure the longevity of this wonder of the world, for starters, it is said that CO2 in the atmosphere must be below 350ppm to stop another bleaching event from happening. There are several organizations, as well as government funded projects, designed to help return the Reef to a state of healthy growth. Some of the most well-known agencies, like UNESCO, the same agency that created the 7 wonders of the world- which the Great Barrier Reef is a part of, has completed a 35 years’ plan starting in 2015 to provide necessary data about how to properly protect the Reef (Australian Government, 2016). The most important factor of all this is the cooperation and action from the Australian government. Currently, there is no real action being taken to protect the Reef, but with both trusts and government funding, almost 300 million dollars will soon be put into the project of protecting the Great Barrier Reef and reversing the effects of pollution (Australian Government, 2016).

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most interesting and complex ecosystems that we have ever studied, everything from its origins, to how it maintains its vast biodiversity is remarkable, and worth preserving. With industrialization, Energy production, and explanation, the Great Barrier Reef is in true danger. Today, with few areas on the planet untouched by human development, the challenge to maintain a piece of living history has never been greater, and without support from both the government, and private agencies, we may lose yet another bit of the story of earths evolution.

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