What's happening to our Reef?

10 September 2016
What's happening to our Reef?

Global Warming's devastating impact on our Reef

Sometimes, an environmental cause can seem insurmountable and beyond our control. We hear about it so often that the message begins to be diluted. Worse still, the concept feels intangible — something that we know is a concern but we shelve away as a problem to deal with ‘sometime in the future’.

Unfortunately, the devastating effects of climate change are demanding our attention. Now. 

It’s become widely known that one of the world’s — more importantly, Australia’s — most treasured natural assets is facing a dire future. The Great Barrier Reef is seeing unprecedented levels of coral bleaching, with recent surveys showing up to 93% of the 2300km-long reef affected.  

What is Coral Bleaching?

Coral Bleaching occurs when water temperature increases, which puts stress on the coral causing it to expel the colourful symbiotic algae it hosts and feeds off and turning it white. Unless temperatures quickly begin to cool to allow the coral to recover, it starves and dies. 

Photos taken of this process reveal the drastic change from the coral’s original condition into, for a time, a deceptively beautiful bleached white state. At this stage the coral is skeletal, which makes it vulnerable to disease and colonisation by seaweed, which in turn causes softer coral to deteriorate and collapse entirely.  

Coral bleaching certainly isn’t a new issue. Two major mass bleaching events causing significant damage occurred in 1998 and 2002, but this year’s event is considered the worst in the Great Barrier Reef’s history.  

What specifically is causing Coral Bleaching?

The rising water temperatures around the reef can be attributed to two things: primarily, the El Nino weather pattern that periodically brings unusually warm water to the equatorial Pacific region; and the undeniable effects of climate change. In addition, water pollution can challenge recovery for the reef during times of stress, limiting the reef’s chances of repairing itself. 

So, just what is at stake? The largest living structure in the world — bigger in size than Victoria and Tasmania combined — is home to a catalogue of undersea life. More than 600 types of coral, 1500 species of fish, 30 species of whale and dolphin and 133 species of shark and rays depend on the reef, not to mention turtles, sea snakes and birds. As coral dies, the entire surrounding ecosystem is transformed with a run-on effect that leads from the reef depths right up to the land, and the half-billion people worldwide that live off this resource. 

Alarming statistics have been bandied about since this most recent mass bleaching. While damage along the reef varies, by far the worst hit are the pristine regions in the north. It is estimated that in these places, half of all coral has died, with the death rate even higher in some locations. Some scientists believe that any hope of change is simply too late, and that by as soon as 2030 the Great Barrier Reef as we know it will have changed significantly.

It’s a sobering thought. A site that draws millions of tourists annually might one day exist only as a tragic reminder of the catastrophic results of climate change.  

Is it too late to save the reef?

Professor Terry Hughes is the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, a research group that undertook intensive aerial and underwater surveys to report on the severity of damage to the reef. He says, despite alarming evidence of destruction, there is still hope. 

“It’s not too late to save the Great Barrier Reef from global warming if we act quickly,” says Professor Hughes. “There’s no time to lose in speeding up the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.  

“So far, we’ve seen close to one degree celsius of warming globally, resulting in three destructive episodes of coral bleaching during very hot conditions in 1998, 2002 and now again in the summer of 2016. Reefs will really struggle at two degrees celsius, so the sooner we act on sharply reducing fossil fuel emissions the better.” 

Environmental groups have campaigned for action around climate change but the Australian government still has vested interests in fossil fuels, approving the controversial development of the Adani coal mine in Queensland which will be the biggest in Australia and produce carbon dioxide emissions on an industrial scale. 

The government’s $1 billion pledge towards protecting the reef is seen as largely insufficient, which makes raising awareness around the urgency of addressing climate change more important than ever.  

It’s no doubt a massive issue, but it doesn’t have to be left to the realm of big business to address. How can, then, the average Aussie do their bit? 

So what can we do to help protect our Reef?

“We can all help to improve the prospects for Great Barrier Reef by reducing our personal carbon footprints,” says Professor Hughes, “and by electing politicians that take climate change seriously. If we want our children to enjoy the reef we should encourage all governments to leave fossil fuels in the ground.” 

Alternatively, you can help Energy Pledge to support the great work that the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) is doing to prevent industrial, profit hungry organisations from exploiting the Great Barrier Reef coastline. Visit the AMCS pledge card to see how you can support them.