Posts Tagged ‘Great Barrier Reef’

Failure to Protect The Great Barrier Reef

Monday, February 25th, 2013

Last summer UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee threatened to downgrade its listing of the Great Barrier Reef from World Heritage Area to Heritage Site in Danger. Downgrading the listing could repel tourists, and ought to be a blow to national pride.

The Great Barrier Reef, managed well since 1994, remains threatened by pollution, warming seas and now coal and natural gas facilities at its southern end (

The Great Barrier Reef, managed well since 1994, remains threatened by pollution, warming seas and now coal and natural gas facilities at its southern end (

The GBR has suffered stress from the usual suspects for decades – overfishing, mining, Crown-of-Thorns starfish plagues, run-off from adjacent mainland coastal farms. Now add to those the coral bleaching and intense cyclones of recent years associated with climate change, as well as the looming devastating impact of ocean acidification. Not surprisingly, half the coral cover has been lost or damaged since the 1980s.

Coral bleaching has killed and damaged corals on the GBR just as it has on reefs around the world (

Coral bleaching has killed and damaged corals on the GBR just as it has on reefs around the world (

The World Heritage Committee based its threat on the recent developments at Gladstone and nearby Curtis Island, at the southern end of the reef. Gladstone has become the largest center for coal export in Australia – there are huge seams of coal running north-south in the eastern part the country adjacent to the reef. The coal is sent where you would expect, to Japan, China, South Korea and India. Now the port of Gladstone is being dredged even deeper to handle ever more and larger ships.

The eastern part of Australia is rich in coal resources.

The eastern part of Australia is rich in coal resources (

That’s part of UNESCO’s concern.

The other part involves coal seam gas, gas that is or can be extracted during the coal mining process. Curtis Island, lying close to Gladstone, is actually part of the GBR World Heritage Area. However, it is now under extraordinary development to liquefy the coal seam gas to liquid natural gas (LNG), and send it off in refrigerated tankers to consuming nations where it will rendered back into natural gas. The liquid takes up 1/600th the volume of the gas, so the advantage of shipping it as liquid is obvious.

The World Heritage Committee report (p20-22) calls for these developments to cease and for a review of their impact. Since no actual sanctions by UNESCO are possible, beyond downgrading of the status of the Reef, what kind of response can we expect?

The Queensland Government has now submitted a defensive response, promising an independent review of the the Port of Gladstone, and commenting on existing water quality improvement programs, research initiatives, the GBR zoning plan, the Coral Sea reserve, and the recently implemented national carbon tax. The number of gas ports under development will be limited, but they will still be in the World Heritage Area.

However, as the Premier of Queensland said early on, ‘We are in the coal business’. That hasn’t changed.

So there will be no reconsideration, no precautionary plan, no delay in port or LNG development. The long-term threat to the reef is dismissed.

Is this anyway to treat a World Heritage Area? Liquid Natural Gas facilities under development on Curtis Island (

Is this anyway to treat a World Heritage Area? Liquid Natural Gas facilities under development on Curtis Island (

We shouldn’t be surprised. Extract and sell is the mantra of resource exploitation in Canada, the US, Africa, South America, Asia – and Australia. The exported coal and LNG from Gladstone and Curtis Island will no doubt support the Queensland economy, providing jobs and infrastructure. Unfortunately, given the other stresses that already exist, there isn’t any reason to think that a severely damaged GBR will be able to recover.

The tension between extracting resources and conserving natural ecosystems is familiar to us everywhere. You would think one place where conservation trumps extraction would be The Great Barrier Reef. Apparently not.

Will anyone listen to the outcry in defense of the Great Barrier Reef? If you would like to add your voice, visit: ‘Save the Reef’ It could only help.

So worth protecting

So worth protecting (

Reefs at Risk

Saturday, February 26th, 2011

Cyclone Yasi, as big as Katrina, and one of the strongest cyclones in a century, swept across the Great Barrier Reef and on into Queensland on Feb 2. A coral reef has little defense against such a storm.

Crossing the unusually warm Coral Sea before it got to the reef, it grew in strength to Category 5 – just as Katrina grew to Category 5 when it blew across the warm Gulf of Mexico. The Coral Sea has in fact never been warmer, a product of the impact of the current La Nina and the long-term warming of the ocean.

Cyclone Yasi, Category 5, about to hit Queensland on Feb 2 (

Because of the warmer surface waters, this has been another bad year of global coral bleaching on reefs from the Indian Ocean, Thailand, the Maldives, and the Caribbean, probably as bad as 1998, certainly worse than 2002 or 2005. Global bleaching events such as these used to occur every hundred or a thousand years. No longer.

Coral bleaching occurs when water temperatures get too warm and symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae are expelled (

Corals live very close to their upper lethal temperature limits, and a rise in surface temperatures of just 1-2 degrees centigrade is enough to cause extensive coral bleaching. Following the global bleaching of 1998, about 15% of corals failed to recover. We’ll see soon enough how much recovery occurs from the global bleaching of this last year.

At the same time, as atmospheric carbon levels continue to rise, the oceans are becoming more acidic. This is the greatest threat of all: at some point calcareous skeletons of corals will no longer form and the reefs will crumble. Only a reduction in atmospheric levels of CO2 will prevent this, and we all know now how unlikely that is.

As atmospheric CO2 rises, so does the amount of CO2 dissolved in sea water, and the pH gradually drops, making sea water more acidic (

Coral reef scientists around the globe have been warning us for some years that coral reefs are not going to survive global warming. The warnings have now escalated. The World Resources Institute, along with the Nature Conservancy and a diversity of coral reef monitoring organizations, has just published “Reefs at Risk Revisited”, updating its last report of 1998. Local and global stresses now threaten 75% of reefs. Without action on our part, by 2030 that will be 90%, and by 2050, all of them.

Of course, efforts to protect the reefs from overfishing, destructive fishing, pollution, and coastal development are all worthwhile, allowing the corals to be as resistant as possible to the serious global stresses of warming temperatures, coral bleaching, and ocean acidification. But there probably isn’t a single coral reef scientist left who thinks there will still be reefs in existence for our grandchildren to see.

What will the world look like without reefs? This isn’t hard to imagine – we need only go to many parts of the Caribbean and snorkel or dive around reefs that now are dead and crumbling rubble, covered with macroalgae.

A Caribbean coral reef reduced to rubble, abandoned by most fish and all scuba divers (

The costs are huge. A coral reef dies, and those who depend on it leave or die with it – reef fish and their prey and predators, scuba diving operations, recreational visitors, community fishermen, everything is lost. Vulnerable tropical countries, most of them island nations, are now advised to reduce their dependence on coral reefs, and ‘build adaptive capacity’.

We don’t know if life is abundant or rare in the universe, but we can make some reasonable guesses. With 100 billion galaxies, each with its trillion or so stars, life is probably not unusual. But it is probably bacteria-like rather than multicellular, for after all that’s what life on our own very benign planet looked like for a couple of billion years or more.

Stromatolites are mounds of cyanobacteria and look like rocks. They dominated life on Earth for about two billion years. Life on other planets may be no more complex. (

Complex ecosystems like those we find on Earth may be extraordinarily unusual across the universe. And even if complex life has evolved elsewhere, it will be different, contingent on the interacting pressures and planetary events of their own systems. Coral reefs evolved here, on Earth, and probably nowhere else.

Other ecosystems may survive these perilous times through adaptation, resilience, and migration to different latitudes. But not coral reefs. We’ve become familiar, even comfortable, with the extinction of particular species. But the extinction of an ecosystem? That is something very different.

There are no words that I know of to express the depth of such a loss. It is a loss to our universe.

Great Barrier Reef. See it while it's still there. (