Andreas Späth

See the Great Barrier Reef before it’s too late

2014-08-18 10:08

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is on many people’s bucket list. It’s over 2300 kilometres long and covers an area almost the size of Zimbabwe. It’s so big, it’s visible from outer space. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the planet’s largest structure made by living organisms. It’s an intricate ecosystem which is home to a myriad of marine species. It’s one of the natural wonders of the earth.

And we’re busy breaking it.

In 2012, a study revealed that the reef lost over half its coral cover since 1985. Among the threats are sediment, mining pollution and pesticides carried into the sea as run-off from the adjoining landmass, shipping accidents, oil spills, purged ballast water from passing vessels, overfishing, tropical cyclones and outbreaks of the voracious Crown-of-thorns starfish which feeds on reef-building coral polyps.

Last week, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority released its latest 5-yearly Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report which confirms that the state of the reef has worsened since 2009 and is expected to deteriorate even further. These conclusions were validated by the Queensland government’s Great Barrier Reef Strategic Assessment.

Clearly, the Australian government is aware of the fragile condition of the reef and recognises the need to conserve it. The great irony is, that while it spends more than a billion rand every year to help protect it, it’s also facilitating its destruction by giving the go-ahead for the development of a huge new coal mine.

Located some 400 kilometres inland from the reef, the Carmichael coal mine, which is owned by an Indian company called Adani, will become Australia’s (and perhaps the world’s) largest coal mine, exporting 60 million tones of the black stuff to India every year. In India, the coal will be burned in power stations to generate electricity, contributing to climate change.

Climate change is acknowledged to represent the greatest threat to the reef, damaging it in two ways.

Firstly, the reef is very sensitive to global warming. Increasing water temperatures are destroying the symbiotic relationship between the reef-building coral polyps and the algae they host and which provide them with food in return for shelter. As the water they live in heats up, the algae can no longer hold up their end of the bargain and the polyps die through starvation in a process referred to as coral bleaching.

Secondly, increasing levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing ocean acidification. Dissolved in seawater, carbon dioxide produces carbonic acid which is steadily raising the ocean’s pH level and making it more and more difficult for reef dwelling creatures with calcareous shells and skeletons to build these structures.

While the new coal mine will thus indirectly add to the Great Barrier Reef’s degradation through climate change, coal dust is already poisoning it directly, being washed into the sea at the harbours from which it is being exported. Applications have been made to load coal not only in ports, but in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park itself by using floating cranes on barges to transfer it from smaller ships onto larger vessels, increasing the risk of even more pervasive pollution.

In addition, Adani is planning to expand the existing harbours at Hay Point and Abbot Point near the southern end of the reef to accommodate the increased volume of coal which will be transported there by rail from the Carmichael mine. At Abbot Point, they expect to excavate about five million tonnes of mud from the seabed and dump it in the middle of the marine park.

It would be easy to simply blame the Aussies (and Indians) for ruining the reef. Ultimately we’re all complicit in the process as long as we keep feeding the fossil fuel guzzling monster that is busy mauling the planet.

With that in mind, let me clarify the call made in the headline to this article. When I asked you to “see” the Great Barrier Reef before it’s too late, I didn’t mean to suggest that you should fly there and visit it physically, because by doing so you’d contribute to its destruction by creating extra carbon emissions. I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for “seeing” the reef on the Discovery Channel and on YouTube instead.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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