Australia's Great Barrier Reef losing brilliant colors to climate change
Large sections of the once-bright coral of Australia's Great Barrier Reef have turned bone-white. Scientists say this is largely due to higher air and water temperatures.
A new report says the world is likely losing more than just the reef's beautiful colors – Australian businesses will suffer as well.
The beauty of the Great Barrier Reef brings many visitors to Australia's Queensland region every year. The tourism industry has pumped money into the economy—the level of business activity and availability of jobs.
Environment, Economy Will Suffer
The loss of coral reefs caused by rising sea temperatures could cost $1 trillion globally, a report from Australia’s Climate Council has estimated. The loss of the Great Barrier Reef alone will cost Queensland 1 million visitors a year, it says. This could put 10,000 jobs in danger and drain $1 billion from the economy.
Since 2014, the Great Barrier Reef has been especially hard hit by bleaching. Higher temperatures create warmer oceans, which put stress on coral reefs. White algae are expelled due to the stress. Much of the coral has turned from colorful purples and oranges to white. Bleaching has happened to the Great Barrier Reef in the past, but never for this long or this severely.
The longer this bleaching event lasts, the harder it is for the reefs to recover.
Climate Change Gets The Blame
Lesley Hughes, a member of the Climate Council, said the report should be a “wake-up call” to act now to protect the reef from further destruction.
“The extraordinary devastation being experienced on the Great Barrier Reef is due to the warming of our oceans, driven by the burning of coal, oil, and gas,” Hughes said. “It would have been virtually impossible for this to have occurred without climate change.”
In showing the reef's value in dollars, Hughes believes that it will quiet some public debate. She said there were unfair arguments being made that "pit the environment against the economy."
“This isn’t just an environmental issue," Hughes said. The Great Barrier Reef brings in "more than $7 billion each year to our economy, while also supporting the livelihoods of around 70,000 people." It's highly important to have a healthy reef to keep jobs in the area, he says.
Some Relief Is On The Way
The $1 trillion figure for the value of the world’s coral reefs came from a 2015 report led by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute. The report found that worldwide, reefs supported 500 million people across 50 nations.
The recent storm Cyclone Debbie cooled the water and is expected to offer Queensland reefs some relief from the bleaching events of 2016 and 2017. However, this is expected to be only temporary.
Will Steffen is a climate scientist and a former professor at the Australian National University. He said bleaching events were likely to become more frequent and more severe in Australia over the next 20 to 30 years. This could devastate the long-term health of the reef and its ability to re-grow.
“The only way to protect coral reefs in Australia and around the world is to stop greenhouse gas emissions. Australia is the caretaker of the Great Barrier Reef," he said. He says Australia is lagging behind other countries in trying to fight climate change.
“Emissions are flatlining in China and declining in the United States" and in other wealthy countries, he said. "In comparison, Australia’s emissions continue to grow. We’ve got to stop and then reverse this trend and we’ve got to do it now. There is no time to lose.”
Surveys Reveal More Reef Bleaching
New coal mines are set to open in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. Steffen said this is inconsistent with protecting the Great Barrier reef and reducing Australian — and global — carbon emissions.
The Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for coral reef studies just released the results of its latest aerial surveys. The group assessed 800 individual reefs.
The surveys show the 2016 and 2017 bleaching events have now affected a full two-thirds of the reef, or about a 500-mile stretch of sea. Only the reef’s southern third has avoided bleaching.
The federal and state governments have a long-term plan to save the reef by 2050.
A Global Concern
Last month, the Australian government announced new measures to curb bleaching. It is offering money to farmers who dump less nitrogen and sediment into the reef, Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg said. Too much nitrogen or sediment can upset the coral's natural growth. He also said the government was working with local communities to improve the reef’s health and maintain it for future generations.
The government is partnering with businesses to protect the reef, Frydenberg said.
The mega-company Adani is looking to build a coal mine in the Galilee Basin, in central Queensland. It would not be far from the reef.
Both the country's federal and state governments support the construction of the mine. Environmental groups and climate scientists have argued it will cause massive carbon emissions. It could endanger local species and groundwater supplies, they say.
The reef – the largest living structure on Earth – will likely suffer the most.