Greatest long-term threat to reef is climate change, experts agree

08.04.16 By

Efforts to rapidly and dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels must be ramped up if Australia is to protect the long-term health of the Great Barrier Reef, the Climate Council said today.

The Reef 2050 Plan Independent Expert Panel has met to discuss the severity and extent of the mass bleaching event underway, including preliminary findings of coral surveys.

The Panel, chaired by former chief scientist of Australia Professor Ian Chubb, has issued a communique dated April 5 that states unequivocally:

“Efforts to address water quality and direct impacts must be combined with sustained global efforts to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions to ensure long term health of the Reef.”

Chief Councillor Tim Flannery said, “Right now, the reef is experiencing the worst mass coral bleaching event in its history driven by climate change.

“The greatest long-term threat the reef faces is climate change. The emissions of greenhouse gases through the burning of coal and other fossil fuels for electricity is driving the rising surface temperatures and ocean acidity that pose the most serious threat to its survival. A healthy reef and coal mining and burning are fundamentally incompatible.

“It is critical that the Federal and Queensland governments clearly understand the link between accelerating climate change and accelerating damage to the reef. The Great Barrier Reef is not only one of the seven wonders of the natural world – it also supports 69,000 jobs in Queensland.

“So far, this crucial fact is being ignored.”

The latest warnings issued on the reef’s health follow the Queensland government approval of the massive Adani mine expansion on the reef hinterland. Scientists have repeatedly warned that opening the Galilee Basin to coal mining would dramatically increase emissions, and drive further climate change.

The Panel will now develop a summary paper on the bleaching event and proposed actions in the coming weeks to provide advice to federal and state ministers on this issue.

The Climate Council issued an urgent scientific alert last month in response to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority upgrading the coral bleaching threat to level three, the highest level of response to coral bleaching. It also offered to brief MPs.

Severe bleaching has been found in the far north, as well as in the section between Cooktown and Tully, with minor bleaching found in southern areas. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority will publicly release a new update shortly.

Record-breaking ocean heat has triggered the current global coral bleaching event, which began in the north Pacific in mid-2014 and expanded to the south Pacific and Indian Oceans in 2015. In February 2016, sea-surface temperatures climbed to an astounding 33°C in the waters off the far north Queensland coast, resulting in coral bleaching across large swathes of the Great Barrier Reef, particularly the most pristine and isolated reefs in the far north.

The bleaching will continue for some weeks, and scientists are monitoring the long-term impacts.

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