Saving the Great Barrier Reef – seriously?

Back in February this year Malcolm Turnbull (acting for the Commonwealth Government, of course) stumped up $60 million to future proof the Reef. Now we have Great Barrier Reef gets funding boost as PM tells ‘doomsayers’ to be optimistic. Via the NY Times and Gizmodo There’s $500 million more now to save the Great Barrier Reef:

    including $200 million in funding to reduce agricultural pollution and $100 million for “reef restoration and adaptation,” which includes a project to grow stronger corals in laboratories. Other projects include killing off invasive species like the crown-of-thorns starfish and community engagement and enforcement

Everyone, except the ABC, is telling Turnbull, that’s fine and dandy, but won’t do much good unless we get serious about climate change.

In fact Professor Terry Hughes tweeted:

    We’re not going to fix the challenge of climate change for coral reefs by killing a few starfish in Queensland …

The link is to a new paper by Hughes et al Spatial and temporal patterns of mass bleaching of corals in the Anthropocene. The paper is pay-walled, but they looked at 100 reefs around the world and found that the average interval between bleaching events is now less than half what it was before. The interval between bleaching does not now allow full recovery, and it is increasingly likely that we will get annual bleaching in the coming decades. Hughes posted this image from the paper:

In Do we seriously want to save the Great Barrier Reef? I said I’ve been citing a 2011 study by K. Frieler et al which found that:

    preserving more than 10 per cent of coral reefs worldwide would require limiting warming to below +1.5°C (atmosphere–ocean general circulation models (AOGCMs) range: 1.3–1.8°C) relative to pre-industrial levels.


The joint media release from Turnbull and others says:

    Like reefs all over the world, the Great Barrier Reef is under pressure. A big challenge demands a big investment – and this investment gives our Reef the best chance.

Our official commitment to the Paris Agreement says:

    Australia is committed to taking strong domestic and international action on climate change.

And key outcomes include:

  • A global goal to hold average temperature increase to well below 2°C and pursue efforts to keep warming below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

A couple of weeks ago David Spratt in 1.5°C of warming is closer than we imagine, just a decade away cites a range of studies that put 1.5°C around the second half of next decade, or as early as five years away. The favourite date seems to be 2026. Spratt says:

    The Paris text was a political fix in which grand words masked inadequate deeds. The voluntary national emission reduction commitments since Paris now put the world on a path of 3.4°C of warming by 2100 (as illustrated), and more than 5°C if high-end risks including carbon-cycle feedbacks are taken into account.

We have to face the fact that the world has given up on coral reefs as we know them, and we are not complaining.

Alice Klein in New Scientist in Our grandchildren may never see the Great Barrier Reef recover reports on a recent Terry Hughes et al paper in NatureGlobal warming transforms coral reef assemblages (both paywalled). The story is simple and brutal:

    The current damage began with a fierce ocean heatwave in early 2016, which directly killed many corals. Overall, 30 per cent of coral cover was lost, making it the worst die-off on record. A second heatwave at the start of 2017 then killed another 20 per cent. While some areas have recovered, corals are still dying in the worst-hit regions.

    Alarmingly, the corals’ tolerance of short periods of very high sea temperatures or of longer periods of less severe heat was just half as much as forecast by NASA and other research teams.

When the corals go, so do the fish:

    Some coral species were harder hit than others. For example, in the northern section of the reef, which was worst affected in 2016, more than three-quarters of staghorn and table corals were wiped out, whereas most dome-shaped corals emerged unscathed.

    This is problematic because dome-shaped corals don’t provide the same protection to fish as intricate staghorn and table corals, says Hughes: “They don’t create the same nooks and crannies for hiding in.”

    This shift has already affected fish diversity, according to a study by Laura Richardson at James Cook University and her colleagues. They found a sharp decline in the number of butterflyfish, for example, which are highly dependent on staghorns.

Here we have bleached coral:

Selina Ward at The Conversation has an article How the 2016 bleaching altered the shape of the northern Great Barrier Reef on the Hughes research which you can read. It includes this image of post-bleaching ‘recovery’:

However, the NS asks the question, will a thriving reef soon be a thing of the past?

Charlie Veron, the first full-time researcher on the Great Barrier Reef (1972) and the first scientist employed by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (1974), often known as the ‘Godfather of Coral’ having participated in 67 expeditions to all the major reef provinces in the world, having written more than 100 scientific papers on reefs plus seven books, including the three-volume Corals of the World, has since 2008 together with a number of colleagues been producing an open access website about coral taxonomy, bio-geography and identification – Corals of The World. The site is used by more than 20,000 researchers and scientists across the world, and the information it provides has helped shape crucial conservation decisions for places like the Great Barrier Reef.

So now we hear the database could be in jeopardy due to a lack of funding. Veron doesn’t expect to get any of the $500 million.

Problem is he knows what he is talking about and is prone to speak honestly. Unlike the chief of the CSIRO, as Will Steffen from the Climate Council reports in CSIRO chief ignores scientific evidence of climate change as biggest threat to reef.

  • Marshall claims that poor water quality was the main reason for the recent devastating and unprecedented bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017.

  • Marshall claims that reefs will recover in two years.

Wrong, and wrong!

Disgraceful, really. Steffen said:

    Addressing water quality is just a bandaid solution that is only useful if we also tackle climate change, the root cause of coral bleaching. Yet Australia’s greenhouse gas pollution levels continue to rise (by 0.8% the past year) without credible federal climate policy in place.

For the record here’s the more detailed breakup of the funding:

  • $201 million further improving water quality with changed farming practices such as reduced fertiliser use, and adopting new technologies and land management practices.
  • $100 million harnessing the best science to implement reef restoration and funding science that supports Reef resilience and adaptation.
  • $58 million expanding the fight against the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish.
  • $45 million supporting other work, particularly increasing community engagement such as Indigenous traditional knowledge for sea country management, coastal clean-up days and awareness raising activities.
  • $40 million enhancing Reef health monitoring and reporting to track progress and inform better management.

The funding will be distributed through the Great Barrier Reef Foundation which will seek extra corporate funding. The AFR ran an article Great Barrier Reef will recover from coral bleaching, says John Schubert.

Dr John Schubert, former head of the Business Council of Australia, actually said:

    There is a lot of work to be done but I’m confident when the temperatures stop rising we can have a reef that can recover over time, but it will never be the same as 100 years ago.” (Emphasis added)

He did not say how much time would be required, which is just as well because no-one knows.

Ian Dunlop spells out the fiduciary duty of politicians and bureaucrats with respect to climate change. He suggests that if they fail there will be legal action.

Can’t come soon enough.

14 thoughts on “Saving the Great Barrier Reef – seriously?”

  1. Brian: Even if the world stopped extracting fossil carbon right now the reef would still be in serious trouble with the current level of bleaching events and ongoing run-off.
    If we are serious about coral reefs the coral zone in general has to move further south, existing heat resistant corals also need to move further south and it would be useful to reduce run-off and the crown of thorns population.
    I think what Turnbull is proposing should be applauded and this applause should not be drowned out by noisy demands to reduce fossil carbon extraction.

  2. What Selina Ward said on 19 April (linked in post, and before the $500 million announcement) in response to the most recent Hughes research was:

    This research leaves no doubt that we must reduce global emissions dramatically and swiftly if we are save these vital ecosystems. We also need to invest in looking after reefs at a local level to increase their chances of surviving the challenges of climate change. This means adequately funding improvements to water quality and protecting as many areas as possible.

    What Turnbull is doing is necessary but not sufficient.

    If we don’t move rapidly on emissions reduction the only truly diversified reefs that exist will be constructed and planted, like botanical gardens.

  3. Brian,

    We have to face the fact that the world has given up on coral reefs as we know them, and we are not complaining.

    I think most people don’t care, unless it affects them directly – i.e. businesses, livelihoods and lifestyles that depend directly on the good health of the GBR. I think most people are unable to appreciate the long-term consequences of a sick or dead GBR (especially if they are remote from it – out of sight, out of mind) and how this may impact directly upon them and their families. I think most people discount the future – they live for the moment and struggle to plan much beyond the next weekend or next holiday. House mortgages are perhaps the few instruments that force many people to plan their lives for the long-term, because that is the only avenue for most people to achieve the goal of owning their own home/property.

    And I think there are a significant group of people that refuse to accept the growing evidence – they are in denial, because if they accept the evidence, it would then require difficult/inconvenient choices/actions and perceived and/or real sacrifices to make.

    Some people refuse to accept that humanity has the capacity to reshape the Earth and change the Earth’s climate, but as Professor Mike Sandiford, Professor of Geology, University of Melbourne, stated in the Foreword of BZE’s Stationary Energy Plan (2010) that includes (bold text my emphasis):

    Twenty-eight billion is a big number. Measured in tonnes it is a very heavy load. This figure is the amount of sediment eroded each year from all our mountains and carried by all our rivers to all our seas. And it is the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) we pump into the atmosphere each year from burning fossil fuels globally – enough to cover Australia in a blanket two metres thick. In dollars, it is just a little more than the extra annual investment needed to reconfigure Australia’s stationary energy system to have zero emissions in just 10 years time.

    Each year the 28 billion tonnes of CO2 we make induces heating. The oceans are now heating at the phenomenal rate of 300 trillion watts. In frighteningly human terms that is equivalent to detonating five Hiroshima sized A-bombs every second, every day of every year.

    To make 28 billion tonnes of CO2 we dig 7 billion tonnes of coal and suck countless gallons of oil and gas from the ground. In total we already excavate more rock from the Earth than nature does. With peak oil rapidly approaching, if not passed, BP’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe attests to the huge risks entailed in maintaining production.

    In order to try to convince more people to care about issues like the health of the GBR, I think the issue needs to be framed in terms of how the apparent declining health of the GBR is likely to directly impact on peoples’ lives and the future of their children.

    Ian Dunlop spells out the fiduciary duty of politicians and bureaucrats with respect to climate change. He suggests that if they fail there will be legal action.

    During WW2, the Nazis thought they could act with impunity performing genocide, and some said the killing of women and children was distasteful to them and used the excuse that they were “only following orders”. The Nuremberg trials showed that “crimes against humanity” could be prosecuted, though perhaps many avoided prosecutions. Perhaps the fear of legal action and punitive financial penalties in future could be an effective weapon on recalcitrant politicians, bureaucrats, business leaders, directors/CEOs of media organisations and media commentators?

  4. Out of sight, out of mind is one factor….
    But humanity has been seeing warning signs in slightly different ways, some very local and concentrated, others wider and possibly with diffuse causes.

    1. Minimata disease as a warning on heavy metal pollution in sea water
    2. Correlation of child development delays and the presence of lead in car exhausts
    2a effects of lead in paints
    3. Asbestosis
    4. Melanoma after sun exposure
    5. Diappearance of some species
    6. Nutrient runoff leading to algal blooms
    7. Fish kills
    8. Global radioactive fallout
    9. Radiation exposure deaths and genetic harm: Nagasaki, Hiroshima
    10. Agent Orange
    11. DDT
    12. PCBs
    13. Other chemicals widely banned from agricultural or municipal use, or from manufacturing processes.

    Because of these and many others, aren’t people these days able to conceive of wide scale damage caused by “invisible physical or chemical material”?

    I would hope so.


  5. Brian:

    the only truly diversified reefs that exist will be constructed and planted, like botanical gardens.

    Beats extinction and will help long term recovery. Also provides a mechanism for speeding up moving reefs to places where water temp is OK, particularly where currents are going in the wrong direction.
    The cost of doing all these desirable things adds to the economic irresponsibility that is part of keeping fossil carbon power a crazy thing to do. We have to deal with a number of mindsets and avoid letting important messages being lost behind messages that some people find off-putting even when they agree.

  6. We survive and stay sane by being able to put out of mind potential horrors that could happen to us. (Think driving cars without obsessing about the risk of car accidents and the contribution to climate change. )
    Climate change is a problem that many people are putting out of mind because the prospect is too horrifying or because they feel powerless to do enough to make a difference.

  7. John, I think it is important not to be too emotionally engaged so that we remain realistic and able to do what we can.

    It’s why I’m enthusiastic about compassion as distinct from empathy.

    I’m reminded about reading Albert Camus’ The Plague. It was a long time ago, but I recall a scene where people were fornicating in a graveyard. Cheerful bloke, Camus!

    Today I heard Prof Mike Hume on Cultures of climate. He believes climate change has become a fetish and we should forget about numbers like 2°C. I think he’s saying, science isn’t much use because people don’t operate that way.

    Can’t say I agree, but I’ll try to understand what he’s on about – if I get time.

  8. John D.: Yes, the federal government should be thanked for doing something, however little, about the future of the Great Barrier Reef – even though I suspect that with so much cash being splashed around, the opportunities abound for crooks and for dodgy tender-winners to get their snouts in the trough.

    Did transplanted and cultivated reefs get any mention in the news releases and interviews? Good idea though.

    Once coral bleaching gets going, there’ll be plenty of terrific surf at Mackay, Townsville, Cairns and so on; pity about the fall in seaside property values; the remains of houses and infrastructure would be a hazard for surfers too.

    Ambigulous: Like your partial list of follies, crimes and tragedies. “When will they ever learn”?

  9. Graham, the media release includes:

    $100 million harnessing the best science to implement reef restoration and funding science that supports Reef resilience and adaptation.

    I think that includes transplanting and reef cultivation. Hard to see it doing much for 3000 reefs spread over 2000 km. However, it is easier to see cultivated reefs being developed to sustain the tourist industry.

  10. Brian

    Did you mean “2026”? forecasting 1.5C temp rise??

    20126 seems too far off, and that far away: excessively precise.

    Pedants Anon
    Gippsland sub-Chapter
    [All correspondence will be entered into, checked, corrected unnecessarily and tediously]

  11. There’s an update on Adani Carmichael coal mine by Bob Burton in a RenewEconomy article headlined Adani’s desperate bid to sell Carmichael coal to Vietnam, link here. The article includes:

    With about 35,890 megawatts (MW) of coal plants at early stages of proposal and over 10,645 MW currently under construction, Vietnam is one of the few remaining growth markets for coal exporters.

    All for the almighty dollar – bugger the reef.

  12. In yesterday’s SMH paper edition is an article by Peter Hannam, online link here, headlined Great Barrier Reef’s five near-death experiences revealed in new paper. The article includes:

    While the research revealed the past dynamism of the reef, the paper stressed the findings “provide little evidence for resilience of the Great Barrier Reef over the next few decades”.

    That’s because the pace of temperature increases has been much greater in the past century, at about 0.7 degrees, compared with “a couple of degrees rise in a 10,000-year period”, Professor Webster said.

    I watched SBS Insight last night on the issue of Santos’ proposal for coal-seam gas wells around Narrabri, NSW and a pipeline to connect the gas field to the existing network. There was lot’s of emotion evident, but little revelation of the long-term existential risks pertaining to climate and water resource contamination. No one said that humanity must stop extracting/burning gas to mitigate dangerous climate change. No one raised the issue that water contamination may not become evident for decades – by then the damage is irrevocable.

    Will people get it before it’s too late?

  13. GM: No sign that the government is getting it, but, hopefully, signs that the fossil companies realize they have to get out of the fossil industry or go the way of the coach-makers.

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