Will the Great Barrier Reef die by 2050?
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef seems indestructible from afar: its 2,600-kilometer-long clusters of corals are even visible from outer space.
But on closer examination, the story loses some of its beauty. The reef -- along with the multi-billion dollar tourist industry it supports -- could be extinct by 2050.
That is what some scientists are warning will happen if nothing is done to halt the impact of human-induced climate change.
Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are causing oceans to warm, they argue, bleaching the reef’s corals to death.
“Most coral reefs have been seriously diminished already,” says Charlie Veron, former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science and author of the three-volume, "Corals of the World".
“Today's children are almost certain to see the Great Barrier Reef trashed within their lifetime.”
Coral bleaching occurs when corals, stressed by warming water, expel the symbiotic algae, which provide necessary nutrients. As a result, they turn colorless and their calcium skeletons get exposed. Unless the water cools, death is not far behind.
Bleaching has been observed on the Great Barrier Reef since 1982, with severe “bleaching events” occurring during the El Niño of 1997-98 and later in 2002 and 2006. During the 2002 episode, it was reported that bleaching affected more than 50 percent of the reefs, with five percent permanently damaged.
“As time goes on and carbon dioxide increases, the likelihood of mass bleaching goes ever higher,” says Veron. “There is no rate as such, just an ever-increasing probability.”
But that’s not the only big threat. Increases in carbon dioxide decreases the ocean’s pH, which causes acidification and has devastating consequences for the skeleton-building corals as well as marine life, Veron adds.
Considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Reef is home to one-third of the world's soft corals -- as well as more than 1,500 species of fish and six of the world's seven marine sea turtle species.
“Coral reefs harbor at least a quarter of the ocean’s biodiversity -- if these fail, there will be a domino effect to most other ecosystems and the outcome could well be a mass extinction,” says Veron. “The only thing that will save coral reefs is to drastically slow the rate of increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”
But not everyone is convinced. Professor Ian Plimer, Professor of Mining Geology at the University of Adelaide and author of "Heaven and Earth: Global Warming -- the Missing Science," is a climate change sceptic. He accuses those who forecast the reef’s demise as using a scare campaign, and says there’s no reason to believe the reef won’t survive.
“Climates have always changed -- corals adapt, as do humans and every other organism,” he says. “The Great Barrier Reef has survived many environmental disasters as the history of coral reef bleaching shows.”
He also stressed that carbon dioxide is not the villain. “Carbon dioxide is the food of life. Without carbon dioxide, we don’t have plants. And if we don’t have plants, we don’t have animals,” he says.
“We’ve had reefs around for 542 million years during periods of time when it was much colder or much hotter -- and when we had much higher carbon dioxide contents in the atmosphere. I have absolutely no worries about the Great Barrier Reef.”
The plan to protect the reef
However, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), the government agency that manages the reef, is taking a more moderate view.
In its 2009 Outlook Report, it identified a number of key risks affecting the reef: climate change, continued declining water quality from catchment run-off, loss of coastal habitats from coastal development and a small number of impacts from fishing.
As part of a six-year action plan currently underway, it has taken steps to mitigate those threats and protect sensitive areas. Among them are partnering with management agencies to fill knowledge gaps, working with the tourism industry to ensure their operations are sustainable and helping communities to reduce their emissions.
“The Reef is undoubtedly facing challenges,” says a GBRMPA spokesperson. “But it is in a better position than most other coral reef ecosystems around the world as management strategies employed over the past 30 years have been instrumental in helping strengthen the reef's resilience.”
Industries and livelihoods also at risk
Climate change is not only threatening the reef’s fragile ecosystem, it’s also putting at risk the livelihoods of industries and communities that depend on it.
It is estimated that the Great Barrier Reef Park contributes about AU$6.9 billion a year to the Australian economy, mostly through tourism and recreational fishing.
But while some scientists fear the worst, it appears their dire predictions over the reef’s future have yet to put a dent in the tourism industry.
“Around a million people dive and snorkel the Great Barrier Reef each year, and there is no evidence that visitor numbers to the [area] are currently being affected by perceptions that the reef is under threat,” says a Tourism Queensland spokesperson.
“[We] have long marketed the Great Barrier Reef as one of our major natural attractions that visitors from around the world travel can experience. We will continue our marketing focus along these lines.”
Even so, a number of operators admit they are worried about what the future holds.
Husband-and-wife duo, Brenda and Alan Irving, have been operating their scuba diving business, The Scuba Centre, in the Whitsunday and Cairns regions of north Queensland since the late 1970s.
They’ve tried to weigh up the differing views on the reef’s long-term health, and what it means for their family business.
“I really don't know what to think,” Brenda Irving says. “Obviously my business would cease to exist [if the reef became extinct]. The number of people wanting to learn how to dive would diminish to the point where only one or two operators would remain.”
At present, however, she remains philosophical. “I've survived some pretty catastrophic events in the past, and I dare say that I'll survive some in the future.”
Quicksilver Group –- considered the largest Great Barrier Reef cruise company in the region operating out of Port Douglas and Cairns -– said it was also taking the climate change threat very seriously.
“We are very concerned and are doing everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint and remove stress from the reefs we visit,” says Quicksilver Group’s environment and compliance manager, Dougie Baird. He is among a team employed to work with government scientists on mitigation measures to protect the reef.
He does remain proactive. “Currently, the reef is looking extremely good. There is a big effort within the natural area managers, tourism and their stakeholders to build resilience into reef communities which will hopefully enable the reef to recover from and resist the effects of warming water.”
Even so, scuba-diving fanatics David and Leyah Namoff, from Miami, aren’t taking their chances. They have always dreamed of diving Great Barrier Reef since they earned their diving certification in the 1970s. They’re getting ready to travel to Australia this month to dive off the reef.
“As a diver, it makes me sad to see the destruction of a reef that has existed for centuries, if not longer,” says David Namoff. “It makes me anxious to see the Great Barrier Reef before this occurs.”