Great Barrier Reef experiences severe bleaching event: 'Failure to protect'

·Environment Editor
·3-min read

Widespread and severe bleaching is affecting the Great Barrier Reef again, as scientists confirm the sixth major event since 1998.

The observation was announced on Friday by the Federal Government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

News of the devastation comes ahead of a UNESCO monitoring mission to Queensland, which follows an attempt by the body to list the world heritage area as “in danger” in June.

A coal mine next to bleached coral
Conservationists have called on the Commonwealth to stop funding fossil fuel projects. Source: Getty

Despite expected cooler temperatures from La Nina, climate change is continuing to destroy the reef with water temperatures of between 0.5 and 2 degrees above average across the marine park.

Across inshore areas between Townsville and Rockhampton, and parts of Far North Queensland, researchers detected soaring temperatures between 2 and 4 degrees above average

Conservationists urge government to stop promoting fossil fuels

Greenpeace responded to the event by renewing criticism of what it says is the Morrison government’s “failure to protect the Great Barrier Reef”.

Conservationists have called on the Federal Government to stop promoting fossil fuels like coal and gas. Source: AAP
Conservationists have called on the Federal Government to stop promoting fossil fuels like coal and gas. Source: AAP

Campaigner Martin Zavan accused the Commonwealth of “throwing billions at band-aid measures while failing to address climate change”.

Australian Conservation Foundation CEO Kelly O’Shanassy urged the Federal Government to stop promoting the use of fossil fuels.

"We all know the biggest threat to the reef is climate change," she said.

“The ongoing digging up and burning of coal, oil and gas is overheating the atmosphere and the ocean, damaging the reef’s sensitive coral through all-too-frequent bleaching events."

Could 'in danger' listing for Great Barrier Reef be unavoidable?

WWF-Australia has warned that Australia could struggle to avoid an “in danger” listing of the Reef by UNESCO if current rates of carbon emissions continue.

The Great Barrier Reef came close to being listed as 'in danger' by UNESCO. Source: Getty
The Great Barrier Reef came close to being listed as 'in danger' by UNESCO. Source: Getty

Significant bleaching has occurred in 1998, 2002, 2016, 2017, 2020 and 2022, and the WWF-Australia head of oceans Richard Lack said the trend appears to now be an event occurring “more than once every two years”.

“Coral bleaching is directly attributable to climate change caused by rising global emissions,” he said.

“Reducing Australia’s domestic and exported emissions fast, this decade, is the main solution within our control.”

Australia’s cumulative greenhouse gas output, known as an emissions budget, has been measured by WWF-Australia.

WWF-Australia compared different emissions pathways that Australia could take. Source: WWF-Australia
WWF-Australia compared different emissions pathways that Australia could take. Source: WWF-Australia

They warn the country is on track to “blow its emissions budget by more than double” unless “accelerated action at all possible levels” is taken by the Federal Government.

If Australia is to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming above preindustrial levels, then emissions cannot exceed 4 billion tonnes, however their analysis suggests a likely output of between 9.6 and 9.8 billion tonnes by 2050.

What is coral bleaching?

The term coral "bleaching" applies in name only and actually describes a complicated scientific process.

Corals are home to microscopic algae called zooxanthellae which live within their tissue and cause them to appear brightly coloured.

When ocean temperatures rise by as little as one degree Celsius, coral can become stressed and expel the coloured algae. It then appears to be bleached white.

While "bleaching" does not immediately kill the coral, without the algae it loses a major nutritional source, and this often results is disease and ultimately death.

Warming waters as a result of climate change is a key driver of bleaching, but low tides, agricultural runoff, and too much sunlight are some of the other known causes.

You can find out more about coral bleaching here with this simple explainer.

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