Shrinking coral and failing government may land the reef on a "list of shame."


A diver measures carbon dioxide uptake in the Great Barrier Reef. Photograph by David Doubilet, National Geographic

Australia's Great Barrier Reef is losing coral at an alarming rate—and may soon lose its prestigious status as one of the world's great natural treasures as well.

The World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has warned that without the urgent implementation of sustainable management improvements, the reef could land on its list of World Heritage in Danger as early as 2014.

"World Heritage in Danger is essentially the list of shame, and we've got real concerns that UNESCO may put the Great Barrier Reef on this list," said WWF-Australia's Richard Leck. "That's not the outcome that anybody wants," Leck added, noting that national prestige and some $6 billion in annual reef-related tourism could both take a hit.

A government-funded Australian Institute of Marine Science report published last year in the journal PNAS echoed the shockingly bad news from earlier studies, concluding that the reef has lost half of its coral cover during the past 27 years—a period that roughly coincides with its listing as a World Heritage Site.

The reef, which stretches for some 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) off northeast Australia's Queensland coast, is the largest structure on Earth built by living organisms. It has been battered by storms and beset by an invasion of crown-of-thorns starfish that choke off the natural ecosystem. The reef faces global challenges like warming temperatures, as well as more localized problems including water-fouling runoff pollution, coastal port development, dredging, and increased shipping thanks to a booming local coal industry.

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