AUSTRALIA’S Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland may seem indestructible from afar, with its clusters of corals so vast it can be seen from outer space.
But despite its great expanse stretching more than 2600 kilometers across the Coral Sea, the reef — along with the multi-billion dollar tourist industry it supports — could be extinct by 2050 if nothing is done to halt the impacts of human-induced climate change, some scientists warn.
Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing oceans to warm, they argue, bleaching the Reef’s corals to death.
“Most coral reefs have been seriously diminished already,” Charlie Veron, former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science and author of the three volume Corals of the World, told CNNGo.
“Children alive today are almost certain to see the Great Barrier Reef trashed within their lifetime.”
Coral bleaching occurs when corals, stressed by warming water, expel the symbiotic algae that provide them with nutrients. As a result, they turn colorless and their calcium skeletons inside get exposed. Death is not far behind unless the water soon cools.
Bleaching has been observed on the Great Barrier Reef since 1982, with severe “bleaching events” occurring during the El Niño of 1997-98 and later in 2002 and 2006. During the 2002 episode, it was reported that bleaching affected over 50 percent of the reefs, with five percent permanently damaged.
“As time goes on and carbon dioxide increases, the likelihood of mass bleaching goes ever higher,” said Veron. “There is no rate as such, just an ever-increasing probability.”
But that’s not the only big threat. Ocean acidification due to carbon dioxide decreasing the ocean’s pH can also have devastating consequences for the skeleton-building corals as well as marine life, he adds.
Considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world and listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, the Reef is home to one-third of the world’s soft corals — as well as more than 1500 species of fish and six of the world’s seven marine sea turtle species.
“Coral reefs harbor at least a quarter of the ocean’s biodiversity. If these fail, there will be a domino effect to most other ecosystems and the outcome could well be a mass extinction,” said Veron. “The only thing that will save coral reefs is to drastically slow the rate of increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”
But not everyone is convinced. Professor Ian Plimer, Professor of Mining Geology at the University of Adelaide and author of Heaven and Earth: Global Warming — the Missing Science, is a climate change sceptic. He accuses those who forecast the reef’s demise as using a scare campaign, and says there’s no reason to believe the Reef won’t be around for sometime to come.
“Climates have always changed. Corals adapt, as do humans and every other organism,” he said. “The Great Barrier Reef has survived many environmental disasters as the history of coral reef bleaching shows.”
He also stressed that carbon dioxide is not the villain. “Carbon dioxide is the food of life. Without carbon dioxide, we don’t have plants. And if we don’t have plants, we don’t have animals,” he said.
“We’ve had reefs around for 542 million years during periods of time when it was much colder or much hotter, and when we had much higher carbon dioxide contents in the atmosphere. I have absolutely no worries about the Great Barrier Reef.”
However, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), the government agency that manages the reef, is taking a more moderate view.
In its 2009 Outlook Report, it identified a number of key risks affecting the reef: climate change, continued declining water quality from catchment run-off, loss of coastal habitats from coastal development and a small number of impacts from fishing.
As part of a six-year action plan currently underway, it says it has taken steps to mitigate those threats and protect sensitive areas. Among them are partnering with management agencies to fill knowledge gaps, working with the tourism industry to ensure their operations are sustainable and helping communities to reduce their emissions.
“The Reef is undoubtedly facing challenges,” a GBRMPA spokesperson said. “But it is in a better position than most other coral reef ecosystems around the world as management strategies employed over the past 30 years have been instrumental in helping strengthen the Reef’s resilience.”
Industries and livelihoods also at risk
Climate change is not only threatening the reef’s fragile ecosystem, it’s also putting at risk the livelihoods of industries and communities that depend on it.
It is estimated that the Great Barrier Reef Park contributes about AU$6.9 billion a year to the Australian economy, mostly through tourism and recreational fishing.
But while some scientists are fearing the worst, it appears their dire predictions over the Reef’s future have yet to put a dent in the tourism industry so far.
“Around a million people dive and snorkel the Great Barrier Reef each year, and there is no evidence that visitor numbers to the [area] are currently being affected by perceptions that the reef is under threat,” a Tourism Queensland spokesperson told CNNGo.
“[We] have long marketed the Great Barrier Reef as one of our major natural attractions that visitors from around the world travel to experience. We will continue our marketing focus along these lines.”
Even so, a number of operators admit they are worried about what the future holds.
Husband-and-wife duo, Brenda and Alan Irving, have been operating their scuba diving business, The Scuba Centre, in the White Sunday and Cairns regions of North Queensland since the late 1970s.
They’ve tried to weigh up the differing view’s on the reef’s long-term health, and what it means for their family business.
“I really don’t know what to think,” Brenda said. “Obviously my business would cease to exist [if the reef became extinct]. The number of people wanting to learn how to dive would diminish to the point where only one or two operators would remain.”
At present, however, she remains philosophical: “I’ve survived some pretty catastrophic events in the past, and I dare say that I’ll survive some in the future.”
Quicksilver Group – considered the largest Great Barrier Reef cruise company in the region operating out of Port Douglas and Cairns – said it was also taking the climate change threat very seriously.
“We are very concerned and are doing everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint and remove stress from the reefs we visit,” said Quicksilver Group’s environment and compliance manager Dougie Baird, who is among a team employed to work with government scientists on mitigation measures to protect the reef.
However, he remains hopeful. “Currently, the reef is looking extremely good. There is a big effort within the natural area managers, tourism and their stakeholders to build resilience into reef communities which will hopefully enable the reef to recover from and resist the effects of warming water.”
Even so, scuba-diving fanatics David and Leyah Namoff, from Miami, aren’t taking their chances. The empty nesters have always dreamed of diving Great Barrier Reef since they earned their diving certification in the 1970s. They’re getting ready to travel to Australia this month to dive off the Reef.
“As a diver, it makes me sad to see the destruction of a reef that has existed for centuries, if not longer,” said David Namoff. “It makes me anxious to see the Great Barrier Reef before this occurs.”
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