Climate change is attacking the Great Barrier Reef


One of the more fantastic experiences that I’ve enjoyed in my lifetime was an opportunity, several years ago, to scuba dive along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. This is truly one of the world’s great natural splendors; it is the largest living thing on Planet Earth, stretching some 900 miles, and it is also much larger than anything that humans have ever constructed. Chock full of colorful marine life, surrounded by crystal-clear waters and easily accessible from Australia’s mainland, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s great tourist attractions. But like virtually every one of the world’s most irreplaceable natural treasures, the reef is under environmental assault in the 21st Century.

Environmental runoff caused by humans harms the corals with toxic pollution or by creating algae blooms that deplete the water of its natural oxygen. The runoff also frequently contains pesticides or pollution from mining waste. But more recently, concern has shifted to the issue of climate change and the impact that a dramatically warmer Pacific Ocean is having on the reef, largely by speeding the process known as bleaching. Earlier this year, Outside magazine caused something of a global environmental panic with a piece which flatly declared that the Great Barrier Reef is dying from bleaching of the corals — a claim that scientists insisted by greatly exaggerated, and not helpful.

But the reality is that climate change and a boiling ocean is causing the reef its worst year since humans began paying attention:

Scientists have confirmed the coral bleaching event that struck the Great Barrier Reef earlier this year led to the worst coral die-off on record.

The worst affected area is a 700km section in the north of the reef, in which 67% of shallow water corals have died in the past nine months.

“Most of the losses in 2016 have occurred in the northern, most-pristine part of the Great Barrier Reef. This region escaped with minor damage in two earlier bleaching events in 1998 and 2002, but this time around it has been badly affected,” said Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

Scientists say the northern section of the reef will take at least 10 years to recover, but are concerned that rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change will lead to another bleaching event within that period, meaning many corals will not be given sufficient time to return to full health.

The bleaching crisis was first uncovered in March, when abnormally high sea temperatures caused corals to expel tiny photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae, turning the coral white.  At the time, 93% of corals surveyed were affected. Some of these corals have recovered in subsequent months, but many are now permanently lost.

Other areas of the reef are doing well — better, in some cases, than the researchers expected to find. What’s more, the government in Australia is launching a $2 billion plan to restore the Great Barrier Reef to full health by 2050. That certainly runs in a different direction from the United States, where the incoming administration has vowed to slash any and all funding related to global warming.

Still, one has to wonder how many headlines such as this the world can absorb. In 2016, the polar ice caps are melting rapidly, the world is setting records for average temperatures on an almost monthly basis, and higher temperatures have caused record flooding in the Southern United States. But the threat to something as beautiful as the Great Barrier Reef is simply unconscionable. If that doesn’t spur the planet to act on climate change, nothing will.

Read more about the 2016 damage to the Great Barrier Reef from Buzzfeed:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2016 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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