Off the shores of northeastern Australia, the surface waters of the Coral Sea periodically get unusually warm, sometimes triggered by the natural climate effect of El Niño. But most recently, scientists are finding, it’s being triggered by a climate in crisis. If you’re a coral in the Great Barrier Reef, that’s not a good thing. Waters that become warmer than usual create a stressful condition for corals, which respond by losing their pigmentations and symbiotic algae. This causes them to “turn white and potentially die,” describes the Australian Institute of Marine Science.
But with no real global initiative to address the climate crisis, there are signs that the Institute could just as well have been describing the fate of the Great Barrier Reef, which finds itself in uncharted waters — and potentially in the fight of its life.
First recorded in the 1980s, mass coral bleaching appears to be a modern phenomenon. “There is no prior evidence of these large-scale events in the 400-year coral core history on the Great Barrier Reef,” notes AIMS. But the bigger tragedy is how often they are occurring now. Earlier this year, the Great Barrier Reef experienced a mass bleaching event — in the absence of El Niño. It was the Great Barrier’s third event in last five years.
Last month, the Great Barrier Reef envoy and Australian politician, Warren Entsch, sent a report to the environmental minister, Sussan Ley, warning that he has “serious concerns in relation to climate change and its growing impact on the Great Barrier Reef.”
In fact, back in 2016, when oceans warmed to record-breaking temperatures, they broke another record — “record widespread coral bleaching on Australian coral reefs,” according to the Australian government. The event killed off 22% of corals there. The very next year, in a highly unusual event, the Great Barrier Reef suffered yet another mass bleaching event. It was another major blow to coral life. The government describes the back-to-back event as “unprecedented,” and that it “collectively affected two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef.”
And then, this year, yet another blow. In a statement confirming the latest mass bleaching event, Australia’s lead management agency for the Great Barrier Reef noted, sadly, that “some southern areas of the Reef that had little or no bleaching in 2016 and 2017 have now experienced moderate or severe bleaching.”
“Climate change remains the single greatest challenge to the Reef,” Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority pressed in its statement, explaining that “while there has been some cooler weather of late, the heat accumulation, particularly through February, led to bleaching.”
Climate change is not just making the days hotter and thereby the waters unusually warmer. It is also creating more extreme rainfalls in Queensland, producing the other enemy to corals: freshwater. This was the case during the Australian summers of 2008–2009 and 2010–2011, according to AIMS, when extremely high rainfall led to “flooding and the discharge of large amounts of freshwater to nearshore reefs resulting in freshwater bleaching.”
Bleached corals, Australian authorities note, are not necessarily dead corals. Bleached corals in reefs that are “mildly or moderately” bleached stand a “good chance” to recover and survive. On “severely bleached reefs,” however, “there will be a higher mortality of corals.”
Still, this world treasure of an ecosystem is likely to be dealt further thermal and freshwater blows, given current climate trends. After all, Mark Eakin, a coral reef expert and coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coral Reef Watch, commented to the press, “We no longer need El Niño to trigger a bleaching even — we just need a hot summer.” And, he added, perhaps with a hint of warning, “the summers are getting hotter and hotter because of global warming.”
Entsch, the Great Barrier Reef envoy, agrees, but worries about a lack of international coordination to address the climate crisis.
“While at present our Reef remains a vibrant ecosystem, without sufficient global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — the Reef’s continued decline over the decades ahead is virtually inescapable,” he further wrote in his report.
Unfortunately for Entsch, he’s not likely to find a sympathetic ear from the president of a country that is not just the most powerful in the world, but also the second greatest carbon dioxide emitter. Donald Trump, in fact, has been busy doing the opposite for the climate by overturning environmental protections and rules, not to mention how he pulled the United States out of the Paris Accord last year.
Is the world willing to let this World Heritage Site lose the battle of its life? And if for whatever reason we allow this tragedy to come to pass, which ecosystem are we next not going to give a fighting chance?