Over three weeks, Australians have been taken on an incredible journey through the biology, beauty and wonder of the Great Barrier Reef, guided by Sir David Attenborough.
As individuals who have had the privilege of working on the Reef for much of our lives, the wonderful storytelling, exquisite photography and stunning production of the Great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough has been inspiring. It’s a great reminder of how lucky we are to have this wonder of nature right on our doorstep.
Particularly special has been the wonderful black-and-white footage of Sir David’s first visit to the Reef in 1957, a trip down memory lane. His attachment and fascination with the Reef are hard to dismiss.
However, as the curtain closes on this wonderful series, Sir David concludes that the Reef that he visited nearly 60 years ago is very different from today.
Research backs up this personal experience. The Australian Institute of Marine Science has shown that the Great Barrier Reef has lost around 50% of its coral cover between 1985 and 2012.
A reef in peril
The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger. The twin perils brought by climate change – an increase in the temperature of the ocean and in its acidity – threaten its very existence. – Sir David Attenborough
As this television series has aired in Australia, an underwater heatwave has caused coral bleaching on 93% of the reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef. Up to 50% of corals in the worst-affected regions may die as a result of this bleaching.
We should not be too surprised. Reef scientists have been warning about this for decades. In 1998, the warmest year on record at the time, the world lost around 16% of its coral reefs in the first global-scale mass coral bleaching event.
Before the current bleaching, the reef bleached severely in 1998 and 2002, with a substantial bleaching event in 2006 around the Keppel Islands. Outside these events, there has been moderate mass bleaching on the reef since the early 1980s (particularly 1983 and 1987), although never to the extent and intensity that we are witnessing today.
Rising sea temperatures
The current bleaching event has drawn widespread media coverage. One of the arguments we have seen raised is that coral bleaching is natural – and that the reef will bounce back as it always has, or even adapt to warming seas.
It is true that certain coral species, and even certain individual colonies within the same species, do perform better than others when stressed by warmer-than-normal sea temperatures. However, the extent of these differences is only 1-2℃. Given that even moderate climate change projections involve temperatures 2-3℃ higher than today, these differences offer little comfort for reefs like the Great Barrier Reef in a warmer world.
The observation that corals grow in warm areas of the globe is a demonstration that corals can and do adapt to local temperatures. However, the time frames involved are hundreds of years, not a single decade. Current rates of warming are much faster than anything for tens of millions of years, which makes the prospect of evolution keeping pace with a changing ocean even more improbable.
Mass bleaching is a new phenomenon that was first reported in the early 1980s. Before this, there are no reports of corals bleaching en masse across any coral reef or ocean region.
Experts are in agreement that mass coral bleaching and death on the Great Barrier Reef is driven by climate change resulting from human activities (mainly burning fossil fuels). This is the conclusion at the heart of the latest consensus of the United Nations scientific report.
Rising sea temperatures coupled with strong El Niños are unfortunately pushing corals to their thermal tolerance limits and beyond. It only takes a temperature increase of 1-2℃ to disrupt the special relationship between corals and tiny marine algae that live inside their tissue, resulting in bleached corals.
In fact, as CO₂ concentrations rise, sea temperatures will continue to climb – increasing the likelihood that mass coral bleaching events will become more frequent and more destructive. Recent research has shown that near-future increases in local temperature of as little as 0.5℃ may lead to significant degradation of the Great Barrier Reef.
Rising temperatures are not the only climate threat. Cyclones are predicted to become stronger (if less frequent) in a warmer world. Since 2005 there have been eight cyclones on the reef of category 3 or above – more than previous decades. We would argue this is evidence that these predictions are already coming true and form part of our current reality.
Heat stress is not just affecting corals on the Great Barrier Reef either. We are seeing reports of bleaching across all of Australia’s coral real estate (Coral Sea, Torres Strait, Kimberley, North West Shelf), the South Pacific and the central and western Indian Ocean.
It is likely only a matter of time before we start to see reports of bleaching from other coral reefs around the world. We are indeed dealing with changing times and a global issue.
It’s not too late to act
It’s not too late to act – but we will need very deep and significant action to occur within three to five years or face a collapse of ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef.
However, it does require strong, immediate and decisive action from our political leaders.
In the lead-up to the federal election, we believe that four major steps are required by our leaders to ensure a future for the Reef:
Mitigate: we need to – as per the Paris Agreement – keep average global surface temperature increases to below 2.0°C, and hopefully 1.5°C in the long term. This means we must adopt a pathway that will bring our greenhouse gas emissions to zero over the next few decades. Our leaders must live up to the global agreement that they committed to in Paris at COP21.
Invest: we need to ultimately close our coal mines and stop searching for more fossil fuels. The experts tell us that we must leave 80% of known fossil fuels in the ground. Let’s invest in coral, renewables and the planet, and not in coal, emissions and ecosystem collapse.
Strengthen: we need an urgent and concerted effort to reduce other non-climate change threats to build the resilience of the reef so it can better withstand the impacts of climate change over the coming years.
Integrate: Australian and Queensland governments have begun a process to address declining reef health through the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan. This plan has a strong focus on coastal water quality. The 2050 Reef Plan and its resourcing will need to consider climate change – especially given that it is likely to make achieving the objectives of the plan even more challenging and impossible (if no action). Otherwise we run the risk of ending up with a great plan for improving water quality by 2050 but no Great Barrier Reef.
We hope that Sir David Attenborough will help inspire Australians to demand action from their political leaders to ensure that this natural wonder of the world continues to inspire, employ, educate and generate income for generations to come.
It seems fitting to end with Sir David’s closing words with a call to our political leaders and fellow Australians:
Do we really care so little about the earth upon which we live that we don’t wish to protect one of its greatest wonders from the consequences of our behaviours?
After all, it is our Great Barrier Reef – let’s keep it great.
Or at least let’s fight to keep it.
Authors: The Conversation Contributor