Researchers have identified several “source” reefs that could serve as a life support system for the ailing Great Barrier Reef, according to a report from the Guardian. The reef has suffered damage from bleaching and other disturbances connected to warming oceans. It is the largest living structure in the world, consisting of over 3,800 reefs over 2,300 kilometers of Australia’s eastern coastline.

Scientists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the University of Queensland, the University of Sheffield, and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), searched the reef for areas with the potential to produce larvae that could help the rest of the reef to recover.

The research discovered 112 “robust source reefs” that possess “ideal properties to facilitate recovery” of the rest of the reef by providing fertilized eggs to other areas via ocean currents.

“Finding these 100 reefs is a little like revealing the cardiovascular system of the Great Barrier Reef,” according to Professor Peter Mumby, from the University of Queensland and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies.

To qualify for the designation, reefs had to be well connected to other reefs via currents, have a degree of protection from dying in a bleaching event, and be less vulnerable to crown-of-thorn starfish outbreaks. In essence, these reefs are well positioned to withstand damage and to help other reefs recover.

“It gives us a bit more hope that the capacity for the barrier reef to heal itself is greater than we expected.”

In recent years, the reef has experienced several bleaching events connected to climate change, including one in 2016 that destroyed nearly one quarter of the entire reef.

Now, researchers are gaining a better understanding of how these reefs are connected. Using ocean current simulations, researchers found these 112 reefs could reach half of all reefs thanks to an “amazing capacity to connect the wider system.”

“It’s not perfect. There are areas in the northern barrier reefs where there are relatively few of these reefs identified,” explained Mumby.

According to Dr. Andrew Lenton, principal research scientist at CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, the study helped outline what will be necessary to help the reef recover, especially protection of the “robust reefs.”

“It also recognises that this alone is not likely to be sufficient to ensure the longer-term viability of the Great Barrier as a whole and will need to be coupled with climate mitigation, local management and active management such as coral re-seeding.”

2 million tourists visit the Great Barrier Reef every year, contributing 6 billion dollars to Australia’s economy.

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