Australia's Coral Reefs: Biodiversity, Economic Importance & Environmental Concerns

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Learn all about Australia's coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef. Learn about their biodiversity, importance to Australia's economy, and the environmental concerns surrounding coral reefs. Take a quiz to see what you know.

A Colorful, Busy City

Close your eyes and imagine yourself in an underwater landscape of peaks and valleys, rocky knobs and ledges of all different shapes and sizes. Everywhere you look, you see bright greens, neon pinks, deep purples, and sunny yellows. You reach out with your fingers and find textures as smooth as silk and then slimy and squishy. Bare parts of the landscape are rough or even prickly.

You're surrounded by a constant bustle of brightly colored traffic of every shape and size. The millions of residents of this world live in layer after layer, more densely packed into their environment than almost anywhere on Earth. They say that New York is the city that never sleeps, but this underwater city deserves that title even more.

Have you figured out where you are yet? You're in the middle of an Australian coral reef! Coral reefs are underwater rock formations that are home to a huge variety of sea life. They are actually made of calcium carbonate, a hard, crusty material that looks like pale rock and contains carbon, calcium, and oxygen atoms connected together.

This coral reef is colorful and full of life.
Example of a coral reef

Australia's Coral Reefs

The most famous reef in Australia is the Great Barrier Reef, which is just off the northeast coast of the continent. At 1,600 miles long, it's the largest coral reef in the world. If you laid it on top of the United States, it would stretch from New York to the middle of Texas--it's so big, astronauts can even see it from space! Australia is also home to Ningaloo Reef, Holmes Reef, and many other reefs in marine parks, national parks, and reserves.

The Great Barrier Reef is found off the northeast coast of Australia.
Great Barrier Reef Location

The Great Barrier Reef is stunningly beautiful, but it's also extremely valuable. The plants and animals that live in coral reefs are incredibly diverse, so much so that coral reefs are often described as the rainforests of the sea.

Coral reefs form when tiny creatures called coral larvae attach themselves to underwater rocks or objects and start to grow. Like all creatures, they produce waste in the form of a hard, rocky substance called calcium carbonate. This covers the rock, creating the shapes that form the coral reef and protect the larvae.

Once the reef is big enough, plants and animals like to live there because they're close enough to the sun to get plenty of light and the hard shell of the reef offers protection from predators. Coral reefs attract huge numbers of fish, sea stars, anemones, sponges, squids, sea snakes, turtles, manatees, and everything that feeds on these creatures. By some counts, more than 25% of all ocean species rely on coral reefs for food or shelter, so they are literally covered with life.

Economic Importance of the Reefs

The coral reefs add a lot to Australia's economy, mostly because they are a really popular tourist attraction--more than 2 million people visit the Great Barrier Reef each year. Tourists can take daily tours of the reefs by boat and plane, and they can also get a closer view by snorkeling, fishing, scuba diving, swimming, whale watching, and more. There's also a lot of commercial fishing in the area, and conservation groups are always working to protect the reef. These activities mean more people nearby, spending more money.

People spend at least $6 billion every year on trips to see the Great Barrier Reef alone. That's roughly 15% of Australia's tourism industry focused on that one thing. So reefs aren't just pretty to look at--they provide jobs for many people in the tourism industry and in other businesses.

The Great Barrier Reef can even be seen from space!
The Great Barrier Reef as seen from above

Environmental Concerns

Coral reefs across the world are being damaged in many different ways. Tourists touch the seabed and stir up clouds of mud, reducing sunlight that can reach the reef. Tourists also accidentally break bits of the reef off. Reefs are also hurt by overfishing, which happens when people catch so many fish that the populations can't recover.

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