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July 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 31, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Climate Change Wreaks Havoc on Coral

and raises more than one stink!

from the July, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The Great Barrier Reef is on most American divers' bucket list, so the current coral bleaching, thanks largely to human-induced global warming, with a little push from El Nino, should be of great concern.

Officials have tried to deny it's happening, but in what appears to be a change of heart, some Australian tourism operators have broken their silence about the worst crisis ever facing the Great Barrier Reef. Previously in denial for fear of turning tourists away (GBR tourism contributes more than $5 billion to the economy annually), dive operators in North Queensland apparently had refused to talk about it, not even taking journalists or Green Party senators, or any who might speak about the bleaching, beyond a small radius of Cairns.

All mentions of Australia were removed from the final version of a UNESCO report on climate change and the world heritage sites after the Australian government objected on the grounds it could impact tourism.

But now, a group deeply concerned about the effect has spoken out.

In a letter to the Australian Prime Minister, signed by 175 businesses and self-styled stewards of the Great Barrier Reef, they wrote, "Australia must start doing everything it can to tackle the root cause of coral bleaching, which is global warming"..."We urge you to rule out any government financing or investment in the Abbott Point coal terminal"...and to "rapidly shift to renewable energy and to rule out any new coal mines to reduce global warming."

Richard Vevers, founder of the Ocean Agency -- a non-profit in partnership with Google, The University of Queensland, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) -- has been documenting the bleaching event since late 2014. He has been reported in www.vice.com/en_au, saying, "The scene wasn't just upsetting -- it was disgusting. The coral was completely covered in algae . . . It was really the soft corals thatsurprised me -- half had disappeared, and the rest were kind of rotting. They're decomposing, falling apart."

Evidently, dying corals smell even worse than they look. They stink.

One of the biggest operators, Tusa Diving, has been showing the reef to tourists for more than 30 years. Speaking to www.vice.com/en_au, its media representative, Katrina, said she thought media reports about the death of the reef were "a bit alarmist and exaggerated," although admittedly, "this year has been a little worse than usual."

A press release issued by the Australian government, attempting to alleviate media alarm, says, "Preliminary findings from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) show approximately three quarters of coral on the Reef has survived to date. The vast majority of the impact is in the northern third of the Reef, from Port Douglas to Cape York, with the central and southern regions escaping significant mortality."

The Guardian newspaper (Australia) reports, "All mentions of Australia were removed from the final version of a UNESCO report on climate change and the world heritage site after the Australian government objected on the grounds it could impact tourism."

You see, there are still climate change deniers, such as Bob Halstead, a leader of the Australian scuba diving industry, who says the reefs are fine and has written a feature in Dive Log Australasia denying the global warming propagandists, insisting it is merely the result of the cyclical El Niño effect. He says "It's lots of nonsense being promulgated by Australian Marine Conservation Society."

Coral bleaching is not only an Australian problem. Twice a year, Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb travels to remote Christmas Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to collect core samples from coral reefs. The data help in reconstructing past climate records and improving predictions of future global warming. But when Cobb arrived on the island last month, she was stunned. The corals she had spent the past 18 years studying were largely dead or dying.

Meanwhile, coral bleaching has spread even further, and Christophe Mason-Parker, author and founder of the Seychelles Sea Turtle Festival, reports witnessing similar massive bleaching far north in the Indian Ocean. He wrote in his blog at www.archipelagoimages.net, together with endless pictures of bleached corals, "As we approach the end of April, the global bleaching event that has been devastating coral reefs along the Great Barrier Reef and western Pacific is now starting to take hold in Seychelles. Elevated sea temperatures have seen corals expel their zooxanthellae, first becoming pale and eventually a ghostly white as they struggle to cope with the conditions. . . all genera now appear to be affected."

Authorities in Thailand have shut down ten popular diving sites, stretching from Rayong province in the east down to Satun in the far south, in a bid to let the corals recover after a survey found bleaching of up to 80 percent of some reefs.

Researchers across the tropical region are reporting similar catastrophes from Hawaii to India, while in the Solomon islands, according to Simon Albert, a senior research fellow at the University of Queensland, five islands have entirely disappeared due to rising sea levels.

Climate change now claimed its first mammal species, the Bramble Cay melomys (called a mosaictailed rat), which resided only on Bramble Cay, an Australian island close to Papua New Guinea. Over the past 20 years, high tide has put more and more of the island underwater, washing away the rodents' homes and drowning many of them. The coastal vegetation that the melomys called home has decreased by 97 percent in the past decade. The last recorded melomys was seen in 2009.

The Maldives, only just recovering from the mass coral die-off in 1998, is now experiencing yet another coral bleaching event. The Indian Ocean archipelago was revered for its colorful coral gardens, but The Ocean Agency says some of the country's most treasured reefs are now barely recognizable. "The bleaching was truly haunting," said Richard Vevers. "It's rare to see reefs bleach quite so spectacularly. The flesh of the corals had turned clear and we were seeing the skeletons of the animals glowing white for as far as the eye could see -- it was a beautiful, yet deeply disturbing sight."

Don't think America has escaped. "More than 70 percent of U.S. reefs have already been hit," says Mark Eakin, the director of NOAA Coral Reef Watch. "In some areas such as Florida, the bleaching event has lasted so long that reefs have been beset by bleaching twice and could be in for their third go-round this summer and fall."

Finally, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at a news conference in Queensland on the 13th of June, less than three weeks out from a general election, that his government plans to spend A$1 billion ($739 million) over ten years to protect the Great Barrier Reef from the effects of climate change and declining water quality.

In the United States, Republican congressional leadership has refused to put climate change on their legislative agenda and Democrats talk about it only when convenient.

So, if the GBR is on your bucket list, listen to John Rumney, who has run fishing and scuba tours there over the past four decades. He says, maybe the tourism slogan should be "Come before it's too late."

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