Great Barrier Reef could face another big coral bleaching event this year
24 February 2017 | Adaptation
The Great Barrier Reef faces an “elevated and imminent risk” of more widespread coral bleaching this year, the reef authority has warned the Queensland government.
An alert from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority says more of the reef is showing built-up heat stress than this time last year, just before its worst-ever bleaching event killed off a quarter of all coral.
The authority is “concerned that a significant bleaching event may occur again this year”, when sea surface temperatures are also warmer than 12 months ago, the government briefing titled “2017 Coral Bleaching Event” says.
It says the authority is “receiving increasing reports of coral bleaching and disease from many parts” of the reef, including offshore Mackay, far south of the worst sections of bleaching in 2016.
A new report to the UN’s world heritage committee by the Great Barrier Reef independent review group (IRG) has criticised Australia’s lack of planning in dealing with the effects of climate change on the reef.
The review says mass bleaching has already crippled for decades a key goal of Australia’s 2050 reef conservation plan, having “substantially diminished the outstanding universal values” of the reef world heritage area.
It says: “unprecedented severe bleaching and mortality of corals in 2016 in the Great Barrier Reef is a game changer”.
“Given the severity of the damage and the slow trajectory of recovery, the overarching vision of the 2050 Plan, to ensure the Great Barrier Reef continues to improve on its [outstanding universal values] every decade between now and 2050, is no longer attainable for at least the next two decades,” it says.
The report also says Australia’s emission reduction targets are “not commensurate with a fair contribution to the reduced global carbon budget” needed to meet Paris agreement targets and protect coral reefs worldwide.
It specifically criticises Australia’s support for new coal mines in Queensland that “pose a serious threat to the [world heritage area]”.
Also on Friday, state and territory governments signed a joint statement calling on the Turnbull government to lift its urgency in cutting carbon emissions to meet Australia’s climate commitments.
The communiqué was released before the Queensland environment and Great Barrier Reef minister, Steven Miles, was due to take state and territory counterparts to view damaged coral off Cairns.
It calls on the Turnbull government to use its review of Australia’s climate change policy to entrench a “bipartisan approach … which provides business, investors and society with certainty over Australia’s transition to a net zero emissions economy” by 2050.
“We acknowledge the urgency of the need for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and where possible to adapt to the impacts of climate change,” it says.
It calls for “urgent and effective integration of energy and climate policy”, amid a continuing political brawl over the cost and reliability of switching power grids to renewable energy.
Miles said the meeting, which the federal environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, declined to attend, involved a “very useful discussion about collaborating together to encourage stronger national action”.
“Today I’ll show them why that work is so important. We are going to see the direct result of climate change in our reef waters,” he said.
The alert from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which is conducting underwater surveys of reefs between Townsville and Cairns, notes that the reef is under “repeated stress” through an “unusually warm winter and a second warm summer” after last year’s bleaching event.
This has led to “more heat stress accumulated in more areas than at this time last year”, compounding the effects of sea surface temperatures also warmer than last year.
“This accumulated stress means that many corals are likely to be more vulnerable than usual to the effects of elevated temperatures,” it says.
Footage released this week by the production company Biopixel shows newly bleached corals at popular dive spots off Cairns.
Richard Fitzpatrick, an Emmy-award winning cinematographer and marine biologist, says in the footage: “At the moment, we have no idea how severe or widespread this current coral bleaching event is going to be.
“The causes of coral bleaching is simply climate change,” he says, before appealing to viewers, including those on “the other side of the planet”, to help end the reliance on fossil fuels “to help protect a living icon”.
Frydenberg told the ABC climate change was the reef’s greatest threat and the government was “concerned about heat stress on the reef but we are making real progress”.
He said the implementation of measures worth more than $2bn towards the Reef 2050 Plan by the federal and Queensland government had already been “very successful”, with 30 of 105 measures completed.
Frydenberg said Adani’s Carmichael mine, which would open up the Galilee Basin, was “300km inland and what we have done internationally and domestically to tackle climate change is significant”.
The IRG said the government was “considering a $1bn subsidised loan” for a new rail line to open up the Galilee Basin to coal mines “that will add substantially to global greenhouse gas emissions”.
“Despite the severe threat to the Great Barrier Reef of increased shipping, dredging and carbon emissions, Australia is still strongly supportive of developing the world’s largest new coal mines in the Galilee Basin,” it said.
It also said the federal government had “underestimated” a funding shortfall of $143m to $408m to meet its Reef 2050 Plan actions.
Up to a third of 103 actions flagged as “‘on track or underway’ are really just starting, or are seriously under-resourced”, it said.
Source: The Guardian