A new survey has found that two-thirds of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has now been severely affected by bleaching. After scientists from the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies completed aerial surveys of the world’s largest living structure last week, they found that 800 individual coral reefs across 8,000km had been bleached. According to reports, the recent findings are alarming scientists who claim that the close proximity of last year’s bleaching with this year’s will not give the already damaged coral enough time to recover.
The aerial survey found that the last two mass bleaching events affected a 1,500km stretch, which has only left the reef’s southern third unharmed. Mass bleaching is a phenomenon that is caused by global warming-induced rises to the temperatures of the sea surface, which has already occurred on the reef four times since studies began. This year’s mass bleaching was the second worst following last year’s, and was particularly intense through the middle section of the Great Barrier Reef.
Professor Terry Hughes, who led the surveys, claimed that the average time that the coral requires to recover from the bleaching is around 10 years. He told the Guardian, “The significance of bleaching this year is that it’s back to back, so there’s been zero time for recovery. It’s too early yet to tell what the full death toll will be from this year’s bleaching, but clearly it will extend 500km south of last year’s bleaching.”
Last year’s bleaching, which was the worst on record, resulted in the destruction and loss of two-thirds of shallow-water corals. Hughes has explained that urgent action must now be taken to tackle climate change before it is too late to save the Reef. Hughes further explained that cyclone Debbie came too late and too far south to stop the destruction of the reef. He explained, “It added to the woes of the bleaching. It came too late to stop the bleaching, and it came to the wrong place”, as it instead destroyed coral along a 100km wide path.
The University of Technology Sydney’s lead reef researcher, marine biologist David Suggett, explained that the reefs that have been damaged need to be connected to those that have not been touched yet by the bleaching, in order to give them a chance to recover. However, he explained, “If bleaching events are moving around the [Great Barrier Reef] system on an annual basis, it does really undermine any potential resilience through connectivity between neighbouring reefs.” The coral reef has now become so damaged that some scientists are giving up hope. Water quality expert, Jon Brodie, told the Guardian the reef was now in a “terminal stage”, and explained that measures to improve water quality are currently failing. He said, “We’ve given up. It’s been my life managing water quality, we’ve failed. Even though we’ve spent a lot of money, we’ve had no success. Last year was bad enough, this year is a disaster year. The federal government is doing nothing really, and the current programs, the water quality management is having very limited success. It’s unsuccessful.”
However, others, such as Jon Day, who was a director of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for 16 years until retiring in 2014, remain optimistic. He explains that the government’s approach is lacking, and therefore this must be improved. He said it was taking too relaxed an approach to fishing, run-off and pollution from farming, and the dumping of maintenance dredge spoil. He said, “You’ve got to be optimistic, I think we have to be. But every moment we waste, and every dollar we waste, isn’t helping the issue. We’ve been denying it for so long, and now we’re starting to accept it. But we’re spending insufficient amounts addressing the problem.”
Col McKenzie, of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, said that more funds were needed for investment into water quality measures, together with a more coordinated approach.
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