Great barrier Reef faces real danger of Coral bleaching

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Reef declared critical due to global heating but the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) says Federal Government cares little for climate action

AMCS says healthy coral can only be maintained if something is done about climate change

The Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) says it is appalled there is still no decisive action on climate change by the Federal Government.

This condemnation follows a report released by an international conservation body recognises the dire outlook for our Great Barrier Reef because of global heating.

In its third World Heritage Outlook Report, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has downgraded our Reef’s outlook to a critical red rating because its World Heritage values are severely threatened and deteriorating due to climate change. 

Our Reef suffered its third mass bleaching event in just five years earlier in 2020 driven by climate change, and scientists have predicted elevated temperatures in north eastern waters across the next two months, putting our Reef at risk of another bleaching event in 2021.

AMCS Great Barrier Reef campaign manager Dr Lissa Schindler said the Federal Government’s refusal to act decisively on climate change is unforgivable in the light of these repeated warnings from scientists and institutions like the IUCN. 

“The Federal Government understands how dangerous global heating is for our Reef.

“How many more warnings do our political leaders need before they take serious action on climate to protect our international icon, all its incredible wildlife and its beleaguered tourism industry?” Said Dr Schindler.

“We call on the Federal Government to take its role as custodians of our Reef seriously by committing to a pathway compatible with 1.5 degrees Celsius of heating in a wide ranging national climate change policy.

“We also call on them to lead the charge globally on tackling climate change, instead of the current dithering.”

Next year, the World Heritage Committee will meet in China to decide whether our Reef should be classed as ‘in danger’.

How the IUCN report highlights the danger

Among the 83 natural World Heritage sites now threatened by climate change is the Great Barrier Reef as highlighted in the IUCN report

Climate change is now the biggest threat to natural World Heritage, according to a report released by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

A third (33%) of natural World Heritage sites are threatened by climate change.

Including the world’s largest coral reef, the Great Barrier Reef, assessed as having a “critical” outlook for the first time.

“The IUCN is an advisory body to the Committee and their latest report will have a bearing on the assessment. An ‘in danger’ rating would be a huge blow for a Reef tourism industry only just beginning to recover from the ravages of Covid-19 restrictions.

“There are thousands of livelihoods depending on a healthy Reef but our Federal Government is not doing enough to ensure the future of this important industry for Queensland,” added Dr Schindler.

“It would not be surprising for Australians to think the Federal Government doesn’t care enough about the Great Barrier Reef and its outstanding value to take serious climate action to protect its future.

“The emission targets our Reef, its wildlife and these Australians need can be achieved through an urgent and just transition to renewable energy.”

“Natural World Heritage sites are amongst the world’s most precious places, and we owe it to future generations to protect them,” said Bruno Oberle, IUCN Director General.

“The IUCN World Heritage Outlook 3 reveals the damage climate change is wreaking on natural World Heritage, from shrinking glaciers to coral bleaching to increasingly frequent and severe fires and droughts.

As the international community defines new objectives to conserve biodiversity, this report signals the urgency with which we must tackle environmental challenges together at the planetary scale.”

The AMCS wants to avoid the devastation that will occur from further bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef – photo ARC Kristen Brown

The IUCN World Heritage Outlook 3 builds on previous reports from 2014 and 2017 to track whether the conservation of the world’s 252 natural World Heritage sites is sufficient to protect them in the long term.

It finds that climate change has overtaken invasive species as the top threat to natural World Heritage.

Among the 83 natural World Heritage sites now threatened by climate change is the Great Barrier Reef, where ocean warming, acidification and extreme weather have contributed to dramatic coral decline.

And as a result decreasing populations of marine species.

Other World Heritage site on danger watch include the Cape Floral Region Protected Areas of South Africa, where climate change has exacerbated the spread of invasive species.

While the Pantanal Conservation Area of Brazil was badly damaged by the unprecedented 2019-2020 wildfires.

In Kluane Lake, located in a World Heritage site in Canada and the USA, the rapidly melting Kaskawulsh Glacier has changed the river flow, depleting fish populations.

The IUCN Outlook assesses the prospects for World Heritage site values – the unique features which have earned them their World Heritage status – based on threats, and how good protection and management is.

It assesses 63% of sites as either “good” or “good with some concerns”, while 30% are of “significant concern” and 7% are “critical”.

Half of the sites are found to have “effective” or “highly effective” protection and management, with the sustainability of the sites’ funding being the most common issue rated as a “serious concern”.

The Outlook report finds that 16 natural World Heritage sites have deteriorated since 2017, while only eight have improved.

The report also finds early evidence of the effects of the turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While lower tourist numbers may ease pressure on some ecosystems, in more cases impacts appear negative. Closing sites to tourism causes significant revenue loss, and illegal activities are on the rise with fewer staff deployed to prevent them.

“The findings of the IUCN World Heritage Outlook 3 point to a dire need for adequate resources to manage our irreplaceable natural areas,” said Peter Shadie, Director of IUCN’s World Heritage Program.

“Many natural World Heritage sites show that conservation can and does work for the greater good, and their achievements serve as models that can be replicated and scaled up elsewhere.

“We need more inspiring examples like Comoé National Park in Côte d’Ivoire to ensure a brighter future for nature’s finest.”

The outlook of Comoé National Park continues to improve and is now “good with some concerns” after moving from “critical” in 2014 to “significant concern” in 2017.

Due to political stability, effective management and international support, populations of chimpanzees, elephants and buffalos are stable, and rare birds are starting to return.

Register for a webinar on 8 December presenting results of the IUCN World Heritage Outlook 3

 

Why we need to prevent coral bleaching

When corals are stressed by changes in conditions such as temperature, light, or nutrients, they expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn completely white.

Coral can survive a bleaching event, if the stress-caused bleaching is not severe, coral have been known to recover.

 

If the algae loss is prolonged and the stress continues, coral eventually dies. Download this infographic: In English

 

Warmer water temperatures can result in coral bleaching.

 

When water is too warm, corals will expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues causing the coral to turn completely white.

 

This is called coral bleaching. When a coral bleaches, it is not dead. Corals can survive a bleaching event, but they are under more stress and are subject to mortality.

 

In 2005, the U.S. lost half of its coral reefs in the Caribbean in one year due to a massive bleaching event.

 

The warm waters centered around the northern Antilles near the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico expanded southward.

 

Comparison of satellite data from the previous 20 years confirmed that thermal stress from the 2005 event was greater than the previous 20 years combined.

Not all bleaching events are due to warm water.

 

In January 2010, cold water temperatures in the Florida Keys caused a coral bleaching event that resulted in some coral death.

 

Water temperatures dropped to (minus) -11.07 degrees Celsius lower than the typical temperatures observed at this time of year.

 

Researchers are evaluating if cold-stress events make corals more susceptible to disease in the same way that warmer waters impact corals.

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