IMOGEN ZETHOVEN. After the bushfires comes the bleaching

Mar 10, 2020

After a summer of intense heat, drought, bushfires, hailstones and floods, we now have another climate-change driven disaster emerging.

In early December, I wrote a column for Pearls and Irritations about the Great Barrier Reef that said this: “Fortunately, a widespread and severe [coral bleaching] event this summer is not forecast at this point.”

How things change. On 3 March, the Bureau of Meteorology’s ReefTemp was showing sea surface temperatures in most of the Marine Park between 0.5 and 1.5°C above average. Some inshore areas particularly in the southern third of the Park were are up to 2.5 to 3.0°C warmer.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coral Reef Watch is showing a dark red mark over the Great Barrier Reef and the adjacent Coral Sea Marine Reserve which signifies well above average sea surface temperatures that are dangerous for corals.

According to Dr Will Skirving of NOAA, the vast majority of reefs along the GBR will have some bleaching by now. “We’ve been at stressful sea surface temperature levels for some time.”

This year’s coral bleaching extends over more of the vast Great Barrier Reef than the devastating events of 2016 and 2017 which severely affected the northern and central Park. This year’s event is affecting the entire system.

At this stage, scientists are predicting a less severe event than the back-to-back bleaching of 2016 and 2017 which killed about half the shallow water corals in the entire Reef, almost all in the northern two thirds.

Whether it will turn out to be less severe will depend on what happens in March. There is already substantial heat stress in the water, so despite some cloudy weather along the northern Queensland coastline as I write, the water temperatures are not expected to fall any time soon.

According to Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of University of Queensland, the corals on Heron Island are already up to 100% bleached. So are many reefs in the Coral Sea Marine Reserve, which looks as if it has even hotter sea temperatures than the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Once again Professor Terry Hughes will lead an aerial survey of the entire Reef, as he did in 2016 and 2017. His survey, combined with in-water reports from marine park rangers and tourism operators, will show the extent of coral bleaching and death.

Prof Hughes told the Sydney Morning Herald, “To my mind, the south [of the Reef] is hotter than I’ve ever seen and it’s much more vulnerable than the north.” That’s because it hasn’t been exposed to widespread and severe bleaching before.

This is the third mass bleaching of the world’s largest living organism in five years. No one thought this would happen this soon.

How is it possible that the two great die-offs of 2016 and 2017 didn’t drive a change of heart at the federal government and produce a strong climate policy? Instead, the Turnbull government, shackled to its internal climate deniers, hastily handed over $443 billion dollars to a small private charity – the Great Barrier Reef Foundation – to improve Crown-of-Thorns Starfish control, reduce catchment pollution and fund science into so-called coral restoration.

There is no doubt that this was done for one purpose: to impress the World Heritage Centre, the secretariat for the World Heritage Committee, and IUCN, which advises the Committee. It was meant to dazzle those who work in these two eminent organisations with the sheer quantum of funds and to eclipse any concern about Australia’s rising greenhouse gas emissions.

It is unclear whether this strategy will work. The World Heritage Committee is scheduled to meet mid-year to review Australia’s performance in protecting our most famous natural icon, so the current bleaching event is very bad timing for the federal government.

The meeting is scheduled to be in China in June/July, so it is may not go ahead as planned, but wherever it is held and whenever it will be, the Australian government’s lack of response to three mass bleaching events in five years cannot be ignored.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest environmental law organisation in the United States, has argued that regardless of Australia’s obligations under the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement, Australia has legal obligations under the World Heritage Convention to protect the Outstanding Universal Value of the Great Barrier Reef, not to mention some of our other World Heritage sites that were badly burnt last summer.

It would surely be beyond the capability of even the Australian government to argue that the third mass bleaching in five years would do no harm to the Outstanding Universal Value of the Great Barrier Reef.

So what can the Committee do? Earthjustice argues that the Committee has a legal obligation to hold Australia to account for its lack of climate action to protect the Outstanding Universal Value of the Reef.

It is an interesting argument with a strong legal basis. What would a “Reef-safe” climate policy look like? It would have to be compatible with well below 1.5°C, as even at 1.5°C the IPCC has warned the world stands to lose a further 70-90 percent of the world’s coral reefs.

A maximum safe level for hard corals is 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels. Last year, Australia already exceeded 1.5°C, with the temperature reaching 1.52C above the long-term average. But with immediate and drastic action we can minimise the loss of one of the natural wonders of the world.

More and more Reef tourism operators are expressing alarm at the federal government’s support for new coal fired power stations, new coal mines and the overall intransigence of the government to act. With voices like these, whose businesses are directly impacted, there is hope for change. If the government chooses not to act, they will be held accountable on the international stage, and of course at the next election.

Imogen Zethoven is an Australian environmentalist who has worked on Australian and global ocean health for nearly 30 years. She currently works for the Australian Marine Conservation Society on the ocean climate nexus with a focus on the Great Barrier Reef @ImogenZethoven


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