The imminent death of the Great Barrier Reef

In 2016, there was an obituary written for the Great Barrier Reef. The cause of death: climate change and ocean acidification. It died at the age of 25 million.

Australian scientists confirmed this is not far from the truth —  if drastic action to save the reef is not taken. In a media release by the James Cook University, scientists conducted a survey last year in which they recorded severe coral bleaching across huge tracts of the Reef. They completed aerial surveys along its entire length. Reports said that while bleaching was most severe in the northern third of the Reef, the middle third has experienced the most intense coral bleaching.

Orpheus Island bleaching. Image: Greg Torda

Prof. Terry Hughes, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, who undertook the aerial surveys in both 2016 and 2017, said the combined impact of this back-to-back bleaching stretches for 1,500 km (900 miles), leaving only the southern third unscathed.

The bleaching is caused by record-breaking temperatures — even without the effects of El Niño conditions.

The aerial surveys in 2017 covered more than 8,000 km (5,000 miles) and scored nearly 800 individual coral reefs closely matching the aerial surveys in 2016 that were carried out by the same two observers.

Dr. James Kerry, who also undertook the aerial surveys, explains further, “this is the fourth time the Great Barrier Reef has bleached severely – in 1998, 2002, 2016, and now in 2017. Bleached corals are not necessarily dead corals, but in the severe central region we anticipate high levels of coral loss.”

It takes at least a decade for a full recovery of even the fastest growing corals, so mass bleaching events 12 months apart offers zero prospect of recovery for reefs that were damaged in 2016.”

Coupled with the 2017 mass bleaching event, Tropical Cyclone Debbie struck a corridor of the Great Barrier Reef at the end of March. The intense, slow-moving system was likely to have caused varying levels of damage along a path up to 100 km in width. Any cooling effects related to the cyclone are likely to be negligible in relation to the damage it caused, which unfortunately struck a section of the reef that had largely escaped the worst of the bleaching.

“Clearly the reef is struggling with multiple impacts,” explains Prof. Hughes. “Without a doubt the most pressing of these is global warming. As temperatures continue to rise the corals will experience more and more of these events: 1°C of warming so far has already caused four events in the past 19 years.”

‘Ultimately, we need to cut carbon emissions, and the window to do so is rapidly closing.”

Mining and Fossil Fuels

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) blasts the mining and fossil fuels industry as well as the lack of government action. Mining and burning of fossil fuels– like coal – are warming the oceans and killing the reef, the Foundation claims.

Kelly O’Shanassy, ACF director said this is a global tragedy blaming the Australian government and coal companies for undermining action on global warming.

O’Shanassy said in order to have any chance of saving the rest of the reef, there should be a stop in digging up and burning coal and take the alternative — to rapidly repower Australia with clean energy.

“We are heartbroken, and furious. But we will not stop speaking out, showing up and holding people accountable for their decisions,” she said adding:

“The death of so much of our reef was not an accident. It was conscious choice. The government and coal companies knew this was coming yet for years they chose to undermine action on global warming. They laughed as they threw coal around Parliament.”

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Indian groups keep stake in Abbot Point, reef dumping

Indian mining groups –  Adani and GVK-Hancock –  have not waivered to drop their stakes in the controversial Abbot Point Port terminals in Northern Queensland.

The rest had already dropped the deal, including BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto. Anglo American is the latest to announce it is walking away.

Abbot Point in Northern Queensland (Photo: NQBPC)

BHP Billiton has formally withdrawn from the $5 billion worth of project as the preferred developer of Terminal 2  in 2012. It also pulled out of building a rail line linking the port with Bowen Basin mines.

Early on, doubt has been cast over the feasibility of the project.

The recent decision by Anglo American re-affirms the unfeasibility of the project. The firm announced that oversupply of coal in the world market has dampen prices.

As of its December 2013 financial records, “metallurgical coal saw underlying operating profit fall 89% to $46m, while thermal coal profits fell 32% to $541m as a result of lower realised prices.”

Bloomberg’s writer, Elisabeth Berhmann, quoted a Sydney-based commodity analyst from Goldman Sachs Groups Inc as saying, “For these projects to be attractive investments, you need to be quite bullish about thermal coal prices….If you’re a power company, and you’re wanting to secure sources of coal, there’s plenty of coal in the market.”

Mining Australia notes the expansion would see four terminals costing $6.2 billion which would provide an extra annual capacity of 120 million tonnes. this would also support the development of mines in the Bowen, Surat, and Galilee Basins.

Adani and GVK Hancock, however, are all out to develop Terminal 0 and Terminal 3, respectively.

Josh Euler, manager for corporate affairs at GVK Hancock, welcomes the decision to go ahead with the expansion. He said in a  press statement , “This is a significant milestone in developing our Galilee Basin coal projects, which represent the creation of over 20,000 direct and indirect jobs and over $40 billion in taxes and royalties.” .

Double disadvantage

Amid bearish coal market prices, environmental groups have denounced the Government’s decision due to its high risk posing an irreversible damage to the world heritage site. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) approved the dumping of 3 million cubic metres of dredge spoil in the reef marine park

The Australian public has been outraged with the approval. Last year, the United Nations downgraded the world heritage site into the endangered list.

Protesters in mascots against dumping on the reef. (Photo: AAP)

GBRMPA expedited a crisis communication in an attempt to ‘enlighten’ and ‘pacify’ the public.. Its chairman, Russell Reichelt,  has written an article at the academic online paper –The Conversation –  to justify the approval. He said the decision is based on comprehensive study and sound judgment that will not do any lasting harm to the heritage site. Discussion has been open to the public since March 3. Reichelt answers the queries himself although readers– composed of engineers, scientists, researchers, and ordinary citizens — are neither convinced nor impressed with the attempt to “gloss over” the real issue.

Observers said, there is something fishy at the sudden turn around of decision considering the warnings over sediments dumping.

Greenpeace  also found a document that questions the integrity of the decision. It shows that GBRMPA feared the dumping would annihilate the barrier reef. However, the Environment Department ignored the warnings and pressured the marine park authority.

Greenpeace campaign poster against Adani group

Indian firms- the culprit

Furious tour operators and Greenpeace are pointing fingers at the Indian mining tycoons as the culprit of an impending catastrophic disaster awaiting the vast expanse of corals.

Association of Marine Park Tour Operators President Colin McKenzie, the peak industry lobby group covering tourism in the World Heritage-listed reef region, accused the marine park authority of pandering to politicians and for allowing Adani group to undertake a risky business.

“The biggest culprit is Adani, an Indian corporation that wants to build Australia’s biggest coal mine in the Galilee Basin in central Queensland, and needs the dredging to allow huge coal ships to access their proposed new coal terminal at Abbot Point to send their coal overseas,” Greenpeace said.

Related story HERE