We need to come to terms that the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem and coral reef ecosystems globally as we know them, are facing extinction. It is a climate emergency. The reef is our canary in a coalmine and it is now dying from the greenhouse gases we have released.
Early surveys of the Great Barrier Reef showed that 93 percent of reefs were affected by coral bleaching. Scientists have been undertaking extensive aerial and underwater surveys since then to refine these initial survey results. Scientists from the Coral Reef Centre of Excellence are now reporting that over 35 percent of coral north of Cairns in the northern and central regions are now dead or dying.
The impact of coral bleaching changes dramatically from north to south along the 2300km length of the Reef.
“We found on average, that 35% of the corals are now dead or dying on 84 reefs that we surveyed along the northern and central sections of the Great Barrier Reef, between Townsville and Papua New Guinea,” says Professor Terry Hughes, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (JCU).
“Some reefs are in much better shape, especially from Cairns southwards, where the average mortality is estimated at only 5%. This year is the third time in 18 years that the Great Barrier Reef has experienced mass bleaching due to global warming, and the current event is much more extreme than we’ve measured before."
“These three events have all occurred while global temperatures have risen by just 1 degree C above the pre-industrial period. We’re rapidly running out of time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” concluded Terry Hughes.
Coral bleaching is caused when abnormal environmental conditions such as much warmer waters occurrs for a lengthy period. Warmer waters cause the coral polyps to expel their symbiotic tiny photosynthetic algae, called ‘zooxanthellae’. It is this algae that creates the vivid colours of the coral. Once the zooxanthellae is gone, the coral takes on a white or bleached appearance. The coral polyps can survive if the abnormal conditions don't last too long and the conditions allow the zooxanthellae to recolonise.
Surveys of the southern region reefs show that more than 95 percent of the corals have survived. They are expected to regain their normal colours in coming months. But the bleaching is likely to slow down their reproduction and growth rates.
“It is critically important now to bolster the resilience of the Reef, and to maximise its natural capacity to recover,” says Professor John Pandolfi from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at The University of Queensland.
“But the reef is no longer as resilient as it once was, and it’s struggling to cope with three bleaching events in just 18 years. Many coastal reefs in particular are now severely degraded,” he said.
Watch a short interview with Professor John Pandolfi tweeted by ABC News 24:
The Reef has suffered serious bleachings in 1998, 2002 and 2016. Coral reefs can take 10 to 15 years to recover from bleaching events. But with global temperatures increasing with climate change and more frequent marine heatwaves expected, coral reef ecosystems face a bleak future.
Recent research on this year's bleaching identify the main cause as increased warmth of waters by climate change and not primaruly El Nino. The study says that events of this scale may occurr on a yearly basis by the mid 2030s.
Most of the focus has been on the destruction and coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, but the coral bleaching event has been global. The effects have also been felt in Western Australia, particularly on the Kimberley Coast.
“In Western Australia, bleaching and mortality is also extensive and patchy,” says Dr. Verena Schoepf from The University of Western Australia. On the Kimberley coast where I work, up to 80% of the corals are severely bleached, and at least 15% have died already."
The latest research from James Cook University shows that the Federal government needs to commit to $1 billion a year for 10 years to reduce water pollution, which would give the reef a chance to survive the impacts of climate change. In a study by Jon Brodie and Richard G. Pearson titled Ecosystem health of the Great Barrier Reef: Time for effective management action based on evidence they outline that many parts of the Great Barrier Reef are in bad shape and continuing to decline - with the main causes being pollutant runoff from agricultural and urban land, climate change impacts, and the effects of fishing.
“It may seem like a lot of money, but we know that amount would be effective and it’s small by comparison to the economic worth of the GBR – which is around $20 billion per year,” said Mr Brodie.
“If we want to provide resilience against the current climate impacts, water management needs to be greatly improved, both in terms of money made available and a cohesive strategy, by 2025,” said Mr Brodie.
Poor water quality is believed to be an important factor in Crown of Thorns outbreaks. The Scientists believe the next Crown of Thorns starfish (CoTS) wave of outbreaks is most likely to occur around 2025. The combination of climate change induced marine heatwaves and outbreaks of the Crown of Thorns starfish could lead to disaster and permanent loss of the coral said Brodie.
The researchers argue that more attention needs to be paid to the entire ecosystem and not just the portion managed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. This would mean expanding the Great Barrier Reef management area to explicitly include, as well as the World Heritage Area, an area from the Torres Strait to Hervey Bay, and the Great Barrier Reef catchment inland. “We need to be managing the ecological Great Barrier Reef, not just the jurisdictional one,” said Mr Brodie.
Last chance election to save the reef warn scientists
Brodie argues that this election cycle is probably the last chance for politicians to put forward their plans of action on water quality and climate change to avoid permanent damage to the Great Barrier Reef.
“It takes time for change to happen and we need to start fast. If something is not done in this election cycle then we may not see good coral again within our children’s lifetime.”
Brodie is not alone for saying this is a last chance for the reef election. Imogen Zethoven for the the Australian Marine Conservation Society issued a statement saying “AMCS and its 200,000 supporters call on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to urgently release a strong climate policy during the election campaign, that is linked to the vulnerability of the Great Barrier Reef,”
“Scientists call this the ‘last chance election’ for the Reef, yet there appears to be no sense of urgency about the plight of our Reef from the PM. If the Federal Government can’t get serious about protecting the Reef after seeing this devastation unfold over recent weeks, when will it take action?"
She quoted Sir David Attenborough on the grave danger facing the reef: “The twin perils brought by climate change – an increase in the temperature of the ocean and in its acidity – threaten its very existence”.
According to Zethoven Bureau of Meteorology records showing that the Reef recorded its highest average sea surface temperatures for February, March and April since records began in 1900. And that as of late May, Reef waters are still warmer than average for this time of year.
“The Coalition must release a climate policy that makes a credible contribution to delivering a healthy future for our natural wonder. The alternative is we risk losing the Reef, the $6 billion tourism industry and the 69,000 jobs that rely on it. The Federal government took action to ban sea dumping in the Great Barrier Reef. Now it’s time for the government to step up and deal comprehensively with the systemic issues threatening its very existence: climate change and farm pollution.”
“It must lift the bar or the next generation will lose the Reef,” Imogen Zethoven warned in the statement.
Politicians biding to Save the Reef
Last week we saw a UNESCO report published on world heritage sites threatened and the impact on tourism. The Australian Government directed that all mentions of threats to Australia's world heritage sites be deleted. There are extraordinary details in this with the Department of the Environment saying it was done without informing the Environment Minister Greg Hunt. Equally disturbing was the fact that UNESCO acquiesced in this scientific censorship. Read more at Australian Government censors UNESCO report on Great Barrier Reef #ReefGate.
On Sunday evening climate change became an important component of the leaders debate between Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull, although the impact of climate change on the reef and what can be done to ameliorate the impacts wasn't brought up in any detail.
On Monday, 30th May, Bill Shorten flew to Cairns where he committed an extra $380 million to protect the Great Barrier Reef. "This reef needs our protection and it needs it now."
The Labor Party, if elected on July 2nd, commits to investment in environmental management, science and research, and reef management with a $500 million fund for 5 years. "If we do not act, it is in serious risk of being irreparably damaged. If we don not act, our children will rightly ask 'Why didn't we'. This is not a problem that I am inclined to pass on to future generations."
But Shorten's promise falls far short of the $1 billion a year for 10 years that scientists say is needed.
Bill Shorten on the Great Barrier Reef tweeted by ABC News 24:
and the ALP ad featuring Bill Shorten and shadow Environment Minister Mark Butler:
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, for the Coalition, then outlined the money set aside for funding in the budget to help save the Great Barrier Reef.
"The reef and the health of the reef is a great passion of mine and my government." said the Prime Minister.
Turnbull was Minister for the Environment with responsibility for the Great Barrier Reef in the final term of the Howard Government to the 2007 election.
"We have increased funding for protection of the reef in the last budget and $200 million from the emissions reduction fund...has been spent on buying carbon offsets from farmers in the catchments that lead into the reef. It is important that we continue to invest and that land management practices do not see more nutrients going into the reef."
The Emissions Reduction Fund pays polluters not to pollute and some projects are funded which may have happened anyway. It spends big for just 7 per cent emissions reduction to meet the low 2030 target. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's promise also falls far short of the $1 billion a year for 10 years that scientists say is needed. Watch on this tweet by ABC News 24:
A third announcement, by Greens Leader Senator Richard Di Natale, advocated for the necessity for a moratorium on new coal mines, "You can't be taken seriously on saving the Great Barrier Reef when you remain committed to opening up new coal mines which will sign the death warrant for the Great Barrier Reef."
Di Natale articulated that the major parties should not be taken seriously when they are taking fossil fuel donations, opening up new coal mines and slashing the renewable energy target. "Those are the critical things that need to happen if we are to take action on reversing the damage that has been done to the Great Barrier Reef"
No promise of money, but certainly a greater articulation of the problem, but Di Natale fails to grasp the enormity of the challenge facing Saving the reef with climate change. Watch on this tweet by ABC News 24:
While these political announcements are important, they are essentially platitudes to lull us into a false sense of security.
The funding pitifully falls short of the scientific estimate of what is, at the minimum, required for short term action. It is like applying band-aids to a body under massive trauma and stress with gaping wounds.
The political announcements vastly under estimate the effort now required to Save the Reef, if it can be saved, from the impacts of climate change.
Great Barrier Reef faces bleak future
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull should be well aware of the scientific basis of the climate change threat to the Great Barrier Reef: he was the Environment Minister from January 2007 to the defeat of the Howard Government in the November 24, 2007 election. That year in October fifty Australian marine scientists issued a strong warning in a Consensus declaration on Coral Reef Futures calling for immediate and substantive reduction targets in human produced greenhouse emissions.
To be blunt, I think we are on a deathwatch for coral reef ecosystems and the Great Barrier Reef. This has been clear for several years for anyone who has closely followed marine and coral reef science. Individual coral species more resilient may survive, and deep water corals may be more protected, but shallow water corals are gone. It is only a matter of time, a few decades.
This will have a huge knock-on impact. Eliminating coral reef habitats will lead to the extinction of about 10 to 20 percent of marine biodiversity on a global level. Half a billion people are directly reliant in some way on seafood for protein most of which is dependent on the diversity of coral reef ecosystems.
We are already experiencing global average temperatures of 1 degree Celsius this year. So far under the Paris Agreement country Nationally Determined Contributions would limit warming to between 2.7C and 3.5C, and that is if all the conditional plans are implemented.
But it gets worse. If we could stop all CO2 emissions now, the temperature would have a one-off rise by about 0.5C to 0.7C for about a decade from the reduction in aerosols, before stabilizing down, according to Professor David Karoly from the University of Melbourne.
It is what NASA scientist James Hansen has labelled as the Faustian bargain. While greenhouse gases from coal and other fossil fuels being burnt cause the greenhouse effect and increase global warming temperatures, the particulates and aerosols injected into the atmosphere also add a cooling effect. When we stop burning coal, we also stop the cooling impact of the aerosols, and so get a temporary boost in temperatures, while the accumulated CO2 will continue to maintain elevated temperatures for hundreds of years.
Marine Scientists have warned in research (K. Frieler et al 2013) that we cannot exceed 1.5C and maintain more than about 10 percent of coral species surviving. I wrote about this in 2012: Global Warming imperils coral reefs: 2 degrees warming is too hot say scientists
Here is Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg at Copenhagen COP15 in 2009 on the threat to the Great Barrier Reef, with the warning we needed to limit warming to 350ppm or 1.5C.
It's the ocean that is the main repository of heat, where 93 percent of the radiative warming happens. Even if we stabilise atmospheric temperatures quickly, the much larger ocean mass will not cool quickly: there is too much inertial mass.
The other factor is the impact of ocean acidification: the oceans are a carbon sink soaking up CO2 from the atmosphere but increasing the ocean acidity which impacts on marine creatures that extract Calcium Carbonate to build their shells - this includes corals. Coral calcification has decreased by about 14 per cent since 1990 (a tipping Point), is accelerating, and coral growth is projected to hit zero around about 2050, according to Dr Glenn De’ath. Oceans will continue to be a carbon sink soaking up CO2 even with zero emissions, but corals simply won't be able to grow in such acidic conditions.
I haven't seen any research or proposals for large scale reduction of ocean acidification. It may be impossible to do at the scale required.
Coral reefs really face a wicked problem. If we had started 20 years ago there was probably a good chance for ecosystem survival, but with the double whammy of ocean warming plus acidification, plus the addition of human industrial, agricultural and fishing impacts, the future looks very bleak.
Marine scientists have been jumping up and down for 10 years or more about the risks, but largely ignored by the politicians. It makes me very angry.
The implications for reef systems of 1.5C decarbonisation pathways
It is worth reading the latest Climate Council Reef report published early May 2016. Good scientific analysis, except it is fuzzy about possible decarbonisation pathways and the global average temperature trend and the effort required to mitigate these impacts.
With greatest respect to Will Steffen, Lesley Hughes and Dr Martin Rice, the Climate Council report doesn't really look at the feasibility of the lower 1.5C pathways, they just advocate them. It is where their analysis largely falls down, I think, in being overly optimistic.
I attended a seminar in April 2016 with Joeri Rogelj, a (world) expert on 1.5C decarbonisation pathways. Most scientists have focussed on 2C pathways, but when Paris included the 1.5C target there were very few people who had looked closely at these lower pathways. Joeri was one. This was my writeup of the seminar: Is #1o5C #ParisAgreement temperature pathway possible?. When you add this information to the research on the impact on ocean temperature and acidification on coral reefs it looks very bleak.
At present we are tracking at 2.7C to 3.5C if all the nationally determined commitments (NDCs) submitted to the UNFCCC Paris Agreement are implemented. At these temperatures extinction of coral reef ecosystems is almost certainly guaranteed. There is a stocktake and review mechanism as part of the Paris Agreement to increase these commitments over time to meet the 1.5C or 'well below 2C' targets, but this will not start before 2023.
Even with an emergency mobilisation ALL 1.5C pathways (Rogerlj) involve temperature overshoot this century: that is, global average temperatures will rise above 1.5C for many years before coming down by the end of the century. All these scenarios include the necessity for large scale negative emissions, when this technology is still to be invented at the scale required.
So that means bleaching temperatures from perhaps 2030 every second or third year for up to 50 years, plus the increasing impact of ocean acidification reducing calciferous growth of corals.
I am not alone in articulating this terribly sad conclusion. David Spratt from Climate Code Red also asks: After record, mind-numbing coral bleaching, what would it take to "Save the Reef"?. It is clear there are no easy answers.
At this stage nothing short of a climate emergency mobilisation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to 100 per cent renewables is necessary, and still we may not succeed in saving the Great Barrier Reef. But it's our best shot.
Philip Sutton from Melbourne has also asked similar questions and come up with a similar answer: we need a climate emergency mobilisation to transition from fossil fuels to renewables.
In an article just published at Climatesafety.net (Our approach to climate and reef campaigning is a dead parrot) Sutton articulates that we need to do all of the following and at extreme speed for a chance to save the world’s coral ecosystems and our Great Barrier Reef. We have to:
- "Stop investing in all new fossil fuel supply (ie. thermal coal, unconventional gas plus coking coal, conventional gas, and oil) and any other technologies that result in net greenhouse gas emissions.
- "Shut down all current uses of coal, oil and gas and any other technologies that result in net greenhouse gas emissions.
- "Create the necessary capacity to safely draw down all the excess CO2 in the air. This is a massive task – like reversing the work of the coal, oil and gas industries over the last 100 years – and it will take a great many decades and, under all estimates that are currently considered realistic, could take hundreds of years.
- "Provide immediate Earth-cooling to protect aggregate food production and biodiversity and to prevent the crossing of key Earth system tipping points like the liberation of the stupendously large carbon stores in the Arctic and the ten metres or more of sea rise due to the loss of large slabs of the the ice sheets in Greenland, the West Antarctic and even parts of the East Antarctic – until natural cooling kicks in strongly enough to prevent these tipping points. This initial fast cooling can only be delivered by solar reflection methods.
It is Sutton's last point on an initial fast cooling that can only be delivered by solar reflection methods, that is controversial. This is solar radiation management (SRM) geo-engineering.
The most cost effective method of solar radiation management is sulfate particle injection into the stratosphere, to mimic volcanic aerosol injection, resulting in atmospheric cooling for one to two years at a time.
But solar radiation management comes with unintended consequences of changing rainfall distribution causing droughts and floods, affecting streamflow and agriculture in hard to predict ways. And when we stop the solar radiation management we will get a temperature bounce back to the original temperature trend. I looked at solar radiation management geo-engineering in a January 2014 post: Climate Geo-engineering study on sulphate injection shows Hydrological disruption to rain and severe drought.
We might save the reef, only to cause dislocation to our agricultural systems, increasing food insecurity, and altering extreme weather impacts in unforseen ways that will impact on human populations.
Implementing solar radiation management would also be difficult: as the effects are international, it would involve major international negotiation to proceed.
So whatever we should do for coral reef ecosystems we should do. But the hard reality is, it is probably palliative care at this stage that will play out over the next 20-30 years.
The pronouncements of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Greens Leader Richard Di Natale fall far short of what is required. The 'Jobs and growth' political slogan is meaningless when you consider the enormous social and economic harm climate change is already inflicting on our ways of living, and our sites of enormous natural beauty.
The first requirement is that we collectively face the truth with the threat of extinction of coral reef ecosystems and the Great Barrier Reef by climate change. The second is that we realise this is now a climate emergency that will impact our lives and future generations and natural ecosystems, and requires an emergency mobilisation by government and society.
- James Cook University, 19 May 2016 - Federal election last chance for the reef - JCU scientists
- Brodie J. and Richard G. Pearson, Ecosystem health of the Great Barrier Reef: Time for effective management action based on evidence, Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, 10 May 2016, doi:10.1016/j.ecss.2016.05.008, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272771416301469
- Coral Reef Studies, Media Release 30 May 2016 - Coral death toll climbs on Great Barrier Reef
- Australian Marine Conservation Society Statement, 30 May 2016 - Prime Minister Turnbull: fix the Great Barrier Reef Coral Bleaching Crisis