14 – Brianna L.

Hi, I’m Brianna (or Bri)! I am a Sophomore majoring in Biosystems Engineering with a biomedical concentration. I am from Ann Arbor, Michigan and I love working out, cooking and hiking. I am very excited to travel to Australia and experience a new country and culture.

While in Australia I hope to learn about the innovative sustainability techniques currently being implemented within the country. I want take the knowledge back to the United States and apply it to future jobs and projects. I am most looking forward to exploring the Great Barrier Reef and seeing all of the wildlife! 

While in Australia, I will be researching the effects of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem. The coral bleaching events that have taken place within the past three decades threaten the sustainability of the reef. As seen in figure 1, 80% percent of the Far North Management Area and 50% of the total coral has been bleached since 2016 (James, 2018). Coral bleaching occurs as a stress response resulting in the loss of the symbiotic relationship between coral and algae (Aisnworth, 2016). Water quality has decreased due to terrestrial runoff, overexploitation (i.e. overfishing) and the decrease in pH levels. The effects of these changes are drastic to the marine ecosystem beginning with the declining coral cover and the reduction of coral diversity (De’ath, Lough & Fabricius, 2009).  

Over the last two decades the management techniques in the Great Barrier Reef have evolved. I hope to understand the current management interventions being taken to restore biodiversity of the reef’s ecosystem. I will compare these management practices to those of a North American marine ecosystem to gain insight on the most beneficial ways to sustain the ecosystem. 

Figure 1. The severity of coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef


James, L. E. (2018, August 07). Half of the Great Barrier Reef Is Dead. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/08/explore-atlas-great-barrier-reef-coral-bleaching-map-climate-change/

De’ath, G., Lough, J., & Fabricius, K. (2009). Declining Coral Calcification on the Great Barrier Reef. Science, 323(5910), new series, 116-119. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/stable/20177135

Ainsworth, T. D., Heron, S. F., Ortiz, J. C., Mumby, P. J., Grech, A., Ogawa, D., . . . Leggat, W. (2016). Climate change disables coral bleaching protection on the Great Barrier Reef. Science,352(6283), 338-342. doi:10.1126/science.aac7125

Project Summary

While abroad in Australia, I studied the Great Barrier Reef and gained insight on the current health of the marine ecosystem. The Great Barrier Reef is composed of over 400 different species of coral. The reef is known for the diversity of species it hosts, including 6 of the 7 species of sea turtles in the world (WWF, 2015). The high biodiversity seen in the reef is important to a stable and successful ecosystem. The Great Barrier Reef has been declining over recent decades. In 2016, 30% of the coral was destroyed due to coral bleaching. I investigated the many factors that affect the reefs declining health and the management techniques in place to restore the Great Barrier Reef. 

While in Cairns Australia, we listened to a presentation by Julie Carmody, a Senior Research Manager at the Reef and Rainforest Research Center. She began by explaining that the reef is composed of 3,000 coral reefs, 600 islands, 300 coral cays and 150 mangrove inshore islands. The many threats to the reef were discussed. These threats include agriculture, crown of thorns starfish, climate events, shipping and ports, climate change and poor water quality.      

Figure 1: Image of the marine ecosystem, including degraded coral and multiple species of fish, found while snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef.

Dr. Carmody said that the largest threat to the Great Barrier Reef is climate change. Climate change has led to increased air and sea temperatures, the rise in sea level, more intense and frequent storms, increased ocean acidification and changes in ocean currents. Climate change has led to increased levels of coral bleaching and decreased calcification rates. She emphasized that in order to preserve the Great Barrier Reef, it is “not just a local effort, it needs to be a global effort.” It is important that everyone make lifestyle changes to decrease their impact on the planet. A more sustainable way of living will decrease the number of bleached and dead corals in the Great Barrier Reef. 

Figure 2: Colony of healthy corals.

To increase the health of the Great Barrier Reef, management plans have been created and research had been conducted. The Great Barrier Reef is managed by multiple groups including the Australian Government, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Queensland government, traditional owners and tourism operators. These groups have created the Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan and the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan to insure health is maintained for the next 30 years. Researchers have been discovering new ways to regenerate coral by transplanting coral polyps grown in nurseries into the Great Barrier Reef. 

Figure 3. This photo, taken while snorkeling in the reef, is of damaged corals covered in sediment.

The everglades, a subtropical wetland ecosystem found in southern Florida has also been impacted by climate change. Due to climate change, it is likely that there will be increased temperature, decreased precipitation, elevated sea level, more severe droughts, shifts in vegetation and wildlife communities and an increased number of invasive species (Nungesser et. Al, 2015). The Everglades are managed by the United States federal government and Florida’s state government. A management plan is in place to restore the wetland for 2050, similarly to the management plans for the Great Barrier Reef. The Everglades management plan regulates water levels, restores water flow patterns and discusses eradicating invasive plants (Blaustein, 2018).

To ensure that degradation of the Great Barrier Reef does not persist, people need to make sustainable choices to decrease their impact on the planet. I believe this starts with educating people on climate change and it’s effects on the Earth’s ecosystems. A focus on sustainability in elementary school would be beneficial to the health of the planet. Focusing on this will likely create life-long sustainable habits. The Great Barrier Reef provides ecosystem services such as maintaining water quality, through filtration, and tourism, which is invaluable to Australia’s economy. I believe that there needs to be a value placed on these ecosystems. Continued governmental intervention, to protect valued ecosystems, is vital. With continued effort and research, I believe that restoration of the Great Barrier Reef is possible. As Dr. Carmody discussed, it is vital that we tackle the problems caused by our changing environment globally.


Australia’s Great Barrier Reef under Threat. (2015, February 09). Retrieved from https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/australia-s-great-barrier-reef-under-threat

Ainsworth, T.D., Heron, S.F., Ortiz, J.C., Mumby, P.J., Grech, A., Ogawa, D., Eakin, C.M., Leggat, W., 2016. Climate change disables coral bleaching protection on the great barrier reef. Science 352 (6283), 338e342. 

Blaustein, R. (2018). Climate change prompts a rethink of Everglades management. Science. doi:10.1126/science.aav7879 

Death, G., Fabricius, K. E., Sweatman, H., & Puotinen, M. (2012). The 27-year decline of coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef and its causes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,109(44), 17995-17999. doi:10.1073/pnas.1208909109

Nungesser, M., Saunders, C., Coronado-Molina, C., Obeysekera, J., Johnson, J., McVoy, C., & Benscoter, B. (2015). Potential effects of climate change on florida’s everglades.Environmental Management, 55(4), 824-835. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy1.cl.msu.edu/10.1007/s00267-014-0417-5

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