Coral Reef Breaking Point

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Comprised of thousands of stunning reef systems and vivid coral cays, as well as a profusion of marine life and tropical sun-soaked beaches, the Great Barrier Reef has long been one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. It’s hardly a surprise that the picturesque locale ushers in billions of dollars from economic activity in both the tourism and the fishing industries alone.

With breathtakingly beautiful sights both above and below the ocean’s surface, visitors can enjoy spectacular aquatic experiences including sailing, snorkeling, scuba diving, helicopter tours, and much more.

It is the world’s largest coral reef and one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. Larger than the Great Wall of China, this natural gift is the only living organism on earth visible from space, as it stretches along the coast of Queensland for 2,300 kilometers.

This stunning spectacle will not sustain for much longer, however, as its precious ecosystem continues to diminish at an unbelievably rapid pace. Over the last 30 years, the Reef has lost half of its hard coral cover as a result of industrialization, global warming, and fertilizer run-off.

BTRtoday talks to Sam Regester, the Environmental Justice Campaigns Director at GetUp and leader of the Great Barrier Reef and coal seam gas campaigns, about the damages to the reef and what can be done to salvage it.

Regester explains the heartbreaking conditions of the Reef.

“It’s genuinely a huge scale crisis,” he explains, “where for the first time we’re not talking about how much of the reef will be affected, but we’re seriously asking the question: Are we going to have a Great Barrier Reef at all for much longer?”

Mass bleaching poses a serious threat to the Reef if circumstances do not recuperate. Bleaching occurs when the tiny pulps that live inside the coral reach a certain level of stress due to abnormal environmental conditions, such as high temperatures. When they reach this level of stress, they stop producing one of the hormones that produces the incredible colors that the reef has long been known and admired for.

As a result, they fade into a bleached white color. In this state the corals have not died just yet, as they are adaptable and can bleach for a small amount of time and recover. However, as the extreme temperatures remain and show no signs of decreasing, the coral is unable to fully rejuvenate.

“It goes from that quite haunting, pure white color to this really awful dark green color, and that is how we know it’s dead,” says Regester.

Coral provides shelter to many fish, so as it dies, the entire reef ecosystem is negatively affected.

Currently the reef is experiencing the most devastatingly rapid bleaching that has ever been observed. As a result, only seven percent of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral hasn’t been affected.

Professor Terry Hughes is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow and Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. He recently posted an emotional tweet demonstrating the mass bleaching throughout the reef.

Hughes’s post highlights the differences in bleaching patterns between the reef’s northern and southern sections. With over 80% classified as severely bleached and only less than one percent as not yet bleached, the northern half has faced the most severe damage.

While bleaching is always expected during the hot summers in Queensland, no one expected the changes to happen so fast. Conditions continue to show no improvement, which will only lead to more and more coral decay.

“We knew we were likely to see some coral bleaching over the summer, but what has actually happened has been far worse than even the most pessimistic scientists expected, and we’ve seen it get worse and worse over the last two or three months,” Regester says.

Working for Queenslanders recently reported that in order to protect the reef from climate change, global warming needs to be limited to 1.5 degrees celsius (34.7 degrees fahrenheit).

Summer heat is not the only stress-factor for the coral. Pollution, mostly as a result of farm run-off, represents a major threat to the reef. The carbon dioxide emitted by human activity reacts with the ocean to increase levels of acidity. This acidification in turn prevents the coral from growing and repairing.

Furthermore, Regester says that the government’s response has been entirely inadequate thus far. While the Reef’s ecosystem is already in very fragile condition, the Australian government has only worsened matters by approving Adani’s Carmichael Coal mine.

“Our government’s response has been to spend more money monitoring how much bleaching there is,” Regester says. “They’ve failed to address the fact that they’ve just approved one of the biggest coal mines in the world, that literally goes through the Great Barrier Reef. They have no plan to shut down our own coal seam power stations, which are some of the worst, oldest, and dirtiest power stations in the world.”

These mining operations are proposed to take place along the shoreline and in the Galilee Basin in Central Queensland, Australia. The mine will require massive amounts of dredging and dumping, and further release toxic chemicals into the sea. These kinds of emissions will increase both the water temperatures and the acidification in the ocean which will only spur further destruction of Australia’s treasured reef.

Changes have already been observed throughout the ecosystem as fishermen and their families continue to mysteriously fall ill and many fish wash ashore with strange flesh diseases.

Working for Queensland states, “If the federal government was serious about protecting the reef from the devastating effect of climate change, they would be joining the rest of the world in setting ambitious pollution reduction targets and making important policy and investment to transiting our economy.”

The Australian election may also be heavily impacted by voters hoping to save the reef. The Labor Party recently announced their radical climate policy which focuses on a fast transition towards a clean energy future.

Regester concludes, “Climate change is a global problem so every single person, government, and corporation needs to be doing everything they can right now to reduce emissions and transition to renewable resources or we will lose the Great Barrier Reef.”