A recent report handed to UNESCO from the Federal Govenment conclude the long-term outlook of the Great Barrier Reef has been downgraded to "very poor" with the impacts of climate change deteriorating its overall health.
The Government’s caretaker of the reef – the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority – releases a report every five years that provides an assessment of the reef’s health, the pressures it’s under and its likely future.
The report stated that “Climate change is escalating and is the most significant threat to the Region’s long-term outlook…The challenge to restore Reef resilience is big, but not insurmountable. However, it requires mitigation of climate change.”
National and global action on climate action "within the next 10 years" was imperative for reef's future survival.
Dr Lesley Hughes, an ecologist and professor of biology who has been researching the impacts of climate change on species and ecosystems for over two decades at Macquarie University said the report acknowledges climate change as the greatest problem and all the Government does in this report is reiterate the Paris agreement.
"The problem with that is the Government is 'seen' to be doing great things but really this is untrue. What are they doing to reach that agreement outcome?"
"The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority manage local threats like regulating fishing no-take zones, water quality and eradication programs, however climate change is a global threat that can only be managed by reducing fossil fuel emissions. The Governments approach is inadequate," she said.
Dr Hughes said the implications of UNESCO listing the reef as in danger would be an embarrassment to the Australian Government who are stewards of the natural icon.
Climate Council’s Head of Research, Dr Martin Rice said Climate change threatens not only the Great Barrier Reef, but the North Queensland tourism industry and the 64,000 workers and communities who depend on it.
"We must work urgently to protect the tourism industry,” Dr Rice said.
“The Federal Government must address the root cause of the problem and, with other countries around the world, rapidly and deeply reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
“We must stop burning and exporting coal, oil and gas. Australia is the sunniest and one of the windiest countries in the world. We have the opportunity to be a global renewables powerhouse, creating new business opportunities and work for thousands of Australians,” he said.
Four ways Climate Change impact the Great Barrier Reef
1. Coral Bleaching
In the summers of 2016 and 2017 back-to-back major bleaching events occurred collectively resulting in mass coral mortality. The report states that "the 2016 bleaching event is at least 175 times more likely to occur due to intensifying climate change". Most of the damage occurred in the Northern regions. The report stated "gradual sea temperature increase and extremes, such as marine heatwaves, are the most immediate threats to the Region as a whole and pose the highest risk".
Climate change is driving an increase in the number of marine heatwave days each year, placing global reefs at serious risks.
2. Oceans are absorbing most of the excess carbon dioxide.
Dr Hughes said although that is good for Climate Change, it's making the oceans more acidic. Marine organisms rely on calcium carbonate skeleton or shell as do corals so are at risk of reduced growth.
"Acidic water makes it harder to lay down skeletons and if that acidification should continue the coral reef will dissolve."
3. Rising Sea Levels
Rising sea levels affect the ecology of the Reef which means the corals can only grow in the first few metres of water because they need light to photosynthesize and this can potentially have an impact on the relative distribution of species on the Reef.
4. increase of intensity of extreme weather conditions
Cyclones have an impact on the physical structure of the reef. What is predicted is that as climate change continues the frequency and intensity of tropical cycles will increase.
Researchers at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) are conducting research into reef restoration.
Recently they raised the next generation of corals which may hold one of the keys to helping the Great Barrier Reef adapt to changing ocean conditions.
They spawned more than 200 individual coral colonies from more than 20 different species in one of the largest captive spawning events in the world’s most advanced research aquarium facility, near Townsville.
"There is alot of research happening in this space at the moment. Researchers are finding coral species which are resilient to warming and looking at ways of growing and transplanting them," Dr Hughes said.
However, recovery is expected to be slowed by other stresses, including from climate change if action is not taken now.