Scientists confirm a 4th global coral bleaching event

Apr 18, 2024
Coral bleached

Scientists confirm a fourth global coral bleaching event, the second in the last ten years.

This is something everyone should be worried about, and everyone should be angry about, frankly”, the head of the Coral Reef Watch program at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Derek Manzello, told ABC Radio.

“Significant severe coral bleaching has been reported in at least 54 countries and territories around the world since February 2023.”

“It’s likely that in a few weeks’ time, this event will officially be the most spatially extensive global coral bleaching event on record.”

Scientist and marine park managers have also confirmed a mass bleaching event has occurred on the Great Barrier Reef, with coral bleaching observed on 73 per cent of surveyed reefs and extreme bleaching occurring throughout the Marine Park.

A Reef Snapshot for the summer of 2023-2024 has found not only bleaching but mortality due to prolonged exposure to high sea temperatures, with the full extent of mortality yet to be confirmed.

Many coral reef scientists are both angry and heartbroken:

Dr Maya Srinivasan of James Cook University: “I’ve been close to tears quite a few times in the last few weeks.”

Dr Selina Ward of the University of Queensland: “I feel devastated. I’ve been working on the reef since 1992 but this [event], I’m really struggling with.”

Emeritus Professor Terry Hughes of James Cook University: “It’s heartbreaking to see damage as severe as this as soon as this.”

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland: “It’s a shock. We clearly have to prevent governments from investing in fossil fuels, or we won’t have a chance in hell [to save reefs].”

There is palpable anger at the prospect of approvals for major new fossil fuel developments. There is also anger at those companies pushing ahead with new gas developments knowing that the consequences of their actions will be the loss of the world’s most biodiverse and beautiful marine ecosystems. The monster in the room is Woodside, but there are other perpetrators.

Professor Tracy Ainsworth, the vice-president of the International Coral Reef Society, has said “Globally we are failing to protect coral reefs and the communities that rely upon them. This is neglect on a global scale.”

Neglect that will have far reaching consequences. At least half a billion people depend on coral reefs for their livelihoods and food security. A quarter of the world’s marine species depend on coral reefs.

There has been little said by the federal government about the bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef. Federal environment Minister Tanya Plibersek made a video statement. The Prime Minister hasn’t commented, nor has Madeleine King, Minister for Resources, or Chris Bowen, Minister for Climate Change.

The world regards the Great Barrier Reef as the marine equivalent of the Amazon. In Brazil, Lula da Silva campaigned to protect the Amazon and now as President is delivering on that promise. He has invested significant political capital to reduce threats to its existence.

Why do we not expect this of our Prime Minister? Why is Anthony Albanese not arguing forcefully on the national and global stage for the continued existence of our marine Amazon? We all know the answer: because it would challenge the government’s continued support for fossil fuel development.

We are confronted by a simple equation: we can’t both expand the fossil fuel industry and save the Great Barrier Reef. It is not possible, despite the government’s safeguard mechanism which incidentally has been criticised as a failure on a global scale. The continued existence of the Great Barrier Reef demands a choice and by approving new fossil fuel projects, the government is making a choice.

Under pressure about the bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef, the government has stressed how much money it is spending to save the global icon. The figure quoted by Minister Plibersek, $4.7 billion, extends from 2014 to 2030. It includes core funding for agencies such as the Marine Park Authority and the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

The reality is that no matter how much money is thrown at the Reef to reduce local threats such as agricultural runoff and overfishing, the existence of the Great Barrier Reef will be determined by greenhouse gas emissions.

The government is worried about the prospect of the Great Barrier Reef being added to the List of World Heritage in Danger. The World Heritage Committee meets in July and will consider this possibility.

Concerned that UNESCO and member countries on the Committee might lean towards an In Danger listing prompted by this year’s bleaching event, the CEO of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Josh Thomas, and the government’s Special Envoy for the Great Barrier Reef, Senator Nita Green, visited UNESCO HQ in Paris in April to convey the message that Australia is on track with efforts to limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Currently Australia’s 43% emissions reduction by 2030 target is aligned with a 2.0°C temperature rise, a level that would see the loss of the world’s coral reefs. According to Climate Action Tracker, Australia is unlikely to meet its 2030 target due to its massive reliance on sinks in the land sector and its continued support for fossil fuels, especially gas.

But it is Australia’s exported emissions from gas and coal projects that may contribute significantly to the loss of the world’s coral reefs – if they are approved.

For years, scientists and conservationists have been saying it’s not too late to save the Great Barrier Reef, but I’m not hearing that now. This summer, I’m hearing a sense of desperation.

Dr Selina Ward again: ‘We really are running out of time. We need to reduce our emissions immediately.’

I visited the southern Great Barrier Reef mid-April. The sea temperature had cooled, but the effects of the earlier extreme temperatures were clear, and they went well beyond shallow water corals. Corals down to 18 metres had died. The Reef needs a long reprieve to fully recover, and it is highly doubtful that it will get one.

It is a terrifying thought that at some point in the next decade, the potential to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C might be lost, along with the potential to preserve the Great Barrier Reef and all the world’s coral reefs.

Right now our vulnerable Reef is under the watch of the Albanese Government, elected with a mandate for climate action. A mandate that requires a choice to be made.

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