Great Barrier Reef coral bleaching threat raised to highest level

Environment minister accused of omitting climate change as cause of bleaching after surveying death of coral in reef’s far north
Joshua Robertson The Guardian 21 Mar 16;

Australian environment minister Greg Hunt has been accused of going silent on climate change as the cause of dying coral in the Great Barrier Reef after a bleaching alert was raised to its highest level.

Hunt, who surveyed the widespread death of coral in the far north of the reef by plane on Sunday, announced plans for more monitoring and programs to tackle run-off pollution and crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks.

But critics including conservationists and the Queensland environment minister, Steven Miles, said Hunt’s response sidestepped the central role of climate change and heat stress as the cause of the bleaching.

Miles said Hunt’s announcements were “window dressing” that duplicated state efforts and ignored the need for a “credible federal government climate policy to address the cause”.

The Great Barrier Reef marine park authority raised the threat level of coral bleaching to a peak of three on Sunday, triggering its highest level of response to “severe regional bleaching” in the northernmost quarter of the 344,400 sq km marine park.

The authority’s chairman, Russell Reichelt, said corals in the remote far north of the reef, where surface sea temperatures reached 33C in February, were “effectively bathed in warm water for months, creating heat stress that they could no longer cope with”.

“We still have many more reefs to survey to gauge the full impact of bleaching, however, unfortunately, the further north we go from Cooktown the more coral mortality we’re finding,” he said.

Reichelt cited tackling run-off, crown-of-thorns starfish and “being part of a global compact to reduce overall emissions” as the keys to protecting the reef from climate change impacts.

Before announcing a new high-technology monitoring program, Hunt told reporters the bleaching he saw during an aerial survey was not as bad as first thought.

“It is not as severe at this stage as 1998 or 2002, which were both El Niño-related events,” Hunt said. “It is, however, in the northern parts, a cause for concern.

“The reef is 2,300 kilometres long and the bottom three-quarters is in strong condition but, as we head north, it becomes increasingly prone to bleaching.”

Miles, who travelled overseas with Hunt for the UN world heritage committee ruling that spared the reef an “in danger listing” last year, said his commonwealth counterpart “knows very well that warmer, more acidic oceans is causing coral bleaching and that is caused by climate change”.

He said federal funding to repeat a University of Queensland survey of 40 reef sites in 2014 was “welcome, but frankly it is window dressing while the Turnbull government has no credible policy for achieving even its own carbon emission targets”.

“While it’s reassuring that the larger part of the reef is unaffected by this year’s global coral bleaching event, the widespread bleaching seen in the northern most parts of the reef is heart breaking,” Miles said.

“Being able to monitor the state of affected coral is important – Mr Hunt’s contribution on that front is welcome – but it is not enough.

“Where is his plan to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas pollution? February sent records tumbling – the new hottest month on record after July 2015.”

The former Australian climate commissioner Will Steffen, who is now of the independent Climate Council, said the reef had weathered El Niño patterns for centuries but only began to experience repeated bleaching events “once global warming began in earnest in the 1970s”.

“Bleaching events have occurred repeatedly since the late 1970s while none were observed before the 1970s,” Steffen said.

“Climate change, combined with the El Niño effect, has proved a deadly stress on the reef.”

The chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Kelly O’Shanassy, said the federal government “appears to be confused about the cause of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef”.

“This is a phenomenon that is firmly a result of climate change, fuelled by burning coal,” she said.

Coral bleaching at Barrier Reef 'severe': Australia
Australian authorities said Sunday coral bleaching occurring in the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef had become "severe", the highest alert level, as sea temperatures warm.
Channel NewsAsia 20 Mar 16;

SYDNEY: Australian authorities said Sunday coral bleaching occurring in the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef had become "severe", the highest alert level, as sea temperatures warm.

Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt said while the bleaching at this stage was not as severe as in 1998 and 2002, also El Nino-related events, "it is however, in the northern parts a cause for concern".

"The reef is 2,300 kilometres (1,429 miles) long and the bottom three-quarters is in strong condition, but as we head north, it becomes increasingly prone to bleaching," Hunt said after an aerial tour of some of the affected areas Sunday, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.

"Essentially what you could see was patches of coral bleaching as you approached Lizard Island (located in the Barrier Reef)."

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said the highest response level, which it described as a "severe regional bleaching", allowed them to step up surveys to understand what was happening.

Hunt said the government would fund a survey of 40 sites in the reef area, which had been investigated in 2012, in September to assess the health of corals and potential recovery options.

"This information is particularly important for the future understanding of the reef given that the frequency of coral bleaching events and the severity of tropical cyclones are predicted to increase in the future," the minister said in a statement.

Bleaching is a phenomenon that turns corals white or fades their colours, threatening a valuable source of biodiversity, tourism and fishing.

It occurs when reef symbiosis - the mutually beneficial relationship between two organisms that inhabit corals - is disrupted by a rise in ocean warming, although there can also be other causes.

The reef - the world's biggest coral reef ecosystem - is already struggling from the threat of climate change, as well as farming run-off, development and the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish.

It narrowly avoided being put on the UN World Heritage in danger list last year with Canberra working on a plan to improve the reef's health over successive decades.