A new study suggests that 50 percent of the Great Barrier Reef's coral has disappeared over the last 27 years.
According to scientists from the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences (AIMS) and the University of Wollongong, the majority of reef loss is due to predatory animals like starfish, and climate change.
“This loss of over half of initial cover is of great concern, signifying habitat loss for the tens of thousands of species associated with tropical coral reefs," the study released on Tuesday said.
AIMS chief John Gunn told Reuters, "In terms of geographic scale and the extent of the decline, it is unprecedented anywhere in the world."
To come to their conclusion, AIMS scientists studied data from more than 200 individual reefs off the Queensland coast covering the period 1985-2012, according to Reuters. The group found that the majority of damage to the reef was caused by cyclones, while nearly 40 percent of the damage came from crown-of-thorns starfish. Coral bleaching from spikes in sea temperatures caused 10 percent of the damage.
While ordinarily reefs are able to recover within 10 to 20 years from storms, bleachings or starfish attacks, climate change is making it increasingly difficult for the delicate system to come back. Both rising ocean acidification and warmer sea temperatures have made it difficult for corals to corals to build their calcium carbonate structures.
AIMS scientist Katharina E. Fabricius told the Washington Post, “We are basically losing an ecosystem that is so iconic for Australia and the rest of the world."
The New York Daily News noted that the Great Barrier Reef, situated off the Australian coast, is one of the seven wonders of the natural world and the only living thing on Earth visible from space.
The reef stretches for 1800 miles parallel to Australia’s northeastern coast, it is a breeding area for humpback whales along with thousands of sea species that can only be found there. It is the biggest single structure made by living organisms.