Australia aims for destruction of Great Barrier Reef

The Australian Government has set a 2020 target of reducing direct national greenhouse gas emissions by between 5 to 15% and thereby aiming at a global scenario that would stabilise global atmospheric greenhouse gases at around 510 to 550 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalents (ppm CO2-e) by the end of the century.

Heogh-Guldberg et al (2007) illustrated what these targets mean for the Great Barrier Reef and much of the marine ecosystem in the following series of pictures. Picture A on the left represents current conditions for corals across much of the GBR. Picture C on the right represents the conditions under the atmosphere being aimed for by the Australian Government.


The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme White Paper, released on 15 December 2008, does not acknowledge the expected impacts on the Great Barrier Reef if its global stabilisation targets are achieved but draws heavily on the economic analysis of Professor Ross Garnaut.

Garnaut (2008a: 38) was brutally frank in his supplementary draft report: “The [strategy of stabilising at 550 ppm CO2-e] would be expected to lead to the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and other coral reefs.”

His final report does not shy away from this conclusion. Garnaut (2008b: 127) concluded that stabilisation at 550 ppm CO2-e will result in:

“Disappearance of reef as we know it, with high impact to reef-based tourism. Three-dimensional structure of the corals largely gone and system dominated by fleshy seaweed and soft corals.”

“A carbon dioxide concentration of 500 ppm or beyond, and likely associated temperature change, would be catastrophic for the majority of coral reefs across the planet. Under these conditions the three-dimensional structure of the Great Barrier Reef would be expected to deteriorate and would no longer be dominated by corals or many of the organisms that we recognise today.”

The White Paper all but dismisses “stabilising concentrations of greenhouse gases at around 450 parts per million or lower” because “achieving global commitment to emissions reductions of this order appears unlikely in the next commitment period [after the commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012].”

Note, there are significant differences in targets based on stabilising atmospheric carbon dioxide at 500 ppm (which picture C above depicts) and stabilising total radiative forcing of greenhouse gases and aerosols at 500 ppm CO2-e (see Avoiding confusion on stabilization targets for climate change and ocean acidification).

However, the White Paper appears to assume total radiative forcing will continue to roughly equal atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Therefore, by aiming to stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gases at around 510 to 550 ppm CO2-e, the White Paper appears to be aiming to stabilise atmospheric carbon dioxide (currently around 385 ppm) at these levels.

This should sound alarm bells for anyone following the scientific literature on ocean acidification, which has found serious impacts occur to coral reefs and much of the marine ecosystem above 450-500 ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (Hoegh-Guldberg et al 2007; Cao and Caldeira 2008).

The public debate in Australia has largely ignored these impacts and it remains to be seen whether there will be any real challenge to the current approach being taken by the Australian Government.

The government has been less than frank on the implications of the targets it has chosen. There is no acknowledgment of the expected impacts to the Great Barrier Reef of stabilising at 510 – 550 ppm carbon dioxide or CO2-e and the choice of stabilising in this range is obscurely buried in the body of this 800 page report.

The White Paper refers repeatedly to 2020 targets of 5-15% reductions. It also refers repeatedly to stabilising at or below 450 ppm, with Garnaut’s pessimistic conclusion that “achieving global commitment to emissions reductions of this order appears unlikely”. But a reader must connect the 5-15% reductions to one of six scenarios set out on page 4-11 of the White Paper to uncover the overall stabilisation goals.

The White Paper relies heavily on Garnaut’s findings but a reader must also connect the obscurely buried stabilisation range of 510-550 ppm in the White Paper to Garnaut’s findings in his 600 page final report.

The government appears to be silently ignoring the expected impacts to the Great Barrier Reef and seeking to avoid confrontation on these implications in selling its climate change policies to the public. Tony Jones repeatedly asked Climate Minister Penny Wong of the implications for the Great Barrier Reef of stabilising at 550 ppm in an interview on ABC Lateline on (30 November 2008). She obviously knew the answer but danced around the questions to avoid stating that the government’s targets would mean the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef.

Perhaps it is too late to save the Great Barrier Reef but silently ignoring the expected impacts when setting climate change targets is disingenuous and does not advance the public debate. We need to fully acknowledge what the science is telling us. Choosing not to listen to weather forecasts does not stop it raining.

We should judge our climate change policies by this simple test: will we leave the GBR for our children? At present the answer we are giving to this question is “no”. We are all responsible for changing the answer to “yes”.

We should demand targets based on what we as a society want to achieve. We should not accept targets that will produce unacceptable outcomes.


A cooler year on a warming planet


New York Times .earth blog |  Andrew Revkin  |  December 16, 2008 12:56 PM

NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the World Meteorological Organization, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Britain’s Hadley Center have all issued recaps of the past year’s temperature patterns today.

The past year, according to the NASA group (the “meteorological year” from December through November), is between the 7th and 12th warmest (because of the range of uncertainty in readings) since systematic meteorological record-keeping began in 1880. But the Goddard scientists note that the 9 warmest years in the record have occurred since 1998…  Read the entire post here

Update on sea surface temperatures and the Great Barrier Reef

The sea surface temperature (SST) model forecast (NOAA) for the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is predicting widespread bleaching, with severe scenarios predicted to affect the northern GBR from mid January 2009. Predictions for the month of December suggests that the potential for bleaching from central GBR intensifying to the north will extend into 2009.  When sea surface temperature forecasts exceed bleaching thresholds and continue long enough to cause bleaching, the outlook products display the bleaching potential during the upcoming warm season.


The NOAA Coral Reef Watch Bleaching Thermal Stress Outlook indicates that the greatest chance of bleaching during the upcoming austral summer will be in the region bounded by Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the northern Great Barrier Reef (GBR). The figure above shows the most recent global 17-week Coral Bleaching Thermal Stress Outlook from the 09 December 2008 model run.

Actual conditions for December show temperatures around the central GBR 0.75-1.0 degrees Celsius above the MMM +1 (mean monthly maxima), and above 1 degrees Celcius to the Northern GBR and waters SE of PNG (Link). Recent SST changes have also been mapped by the Australian Bureau for Meteorology and confirm gradual warming on the GBR despite sub surface cooling in the central to eastern pacific.


Current SST tracking on Heron island on the southern GBR shows temperatures following a similar profile to that of the 2001/2002 bleaching event. The increase in SST over the next month will be critical in determining the risk of bleaching across southern GBR.

The majority of dynamic computer models are predicting neutral climate conditions to continue through the southern summer, however, some models are predicting a return to La Niña conditions which may drive monsoon, storm like conditions and generate some cooling in Queensland (Link). More updates as they come.

People must be part of reef conservation

This is from a July 10 (2008) press release from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.  I think this and Terry’s plenary did a great job of covering the importance of people in the equation.  You can watch Terry Hughes’ plenary talk here.


The world’s coral reefs are not doomed – provided governments and communities take the urgent and necessary actions to preserve them.

That’s the message from eminent Australian marine scientist and recipient of this year’s Darwin Medal Professor Terry Hughes in his keynote address to the 11th International Coral Reef Symposium, being held at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA from June 7-11.

Prof. Hughes is the Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, based at James Cook University, Townsville, Australia.

“The global coral reef crisis is really a crisis of governance. Many of the measures put in place are failing, not because of biology, but because of lack of support from local people and governments,” he says.

“For example many no-take marine reserves have been set up round the world by non-government organisations – but nearly all of them are proving unsuccessful because they ignore the needs of the local population and have failed to win their backing.”

Professor Hughes called on coral reef researchers worldwide to work harder at the societal and economic aspects of protecting the oceans and their living resources.  Good biology alone is not enough. “The reefs are not doomed if we all do the right thing,” he asserts.

Continue reading

World’s corals reefs are vanishing, report says

artcoralCNN News – 10th December 2008

The world has lost almost one-fifth of its coral reefs according a new report released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Compiled by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, the report has brought together the work of researchers from 15 countries with data stretching back 20 years. It’s not just climate change — which raises ocean temperatures and increases seawater acidification — which is damaging reefs. In some parts of the world overfishing, pollution and invasive species are proving equally harmful.

Scientists are warning that reef destruction will have alarming consequences for around 500 million people who rely on coral reefs for their livelihood.Left unchecked, remaining reefs could be completely wiped out by 2050, the report says.

Professor Olof Linden from the World Maritime University in Malmo, Sweden, told CNN:

“We see a great and imminent threat of more reefs being lost.”

Speaking from the U.N. Climate Conference in Poznan, Poland, Professor Linden said that the 19 percent figure is an average.

“For many developing countries like Sri Lanka and countries in East Africa the percentage of damage is much worse. Sometimes three times as high in some places,” he said.

“In these areas we have local effects like dynamite fishing and other destructive fishing techniques combined the threat of coral mining, unmanaged tourism and all kinds of pollution from agriculture.”

But overall the biggest threat to reef survival is climate change.

“The most destructive climate event to impact the coral reefs so far,” said Linden, “was the 1998 El Nino which caused major coral bleaching and disrupted ecosystems all over the planet.”

Scientists say reefs have recovered somewhat from those bleaching events. But the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, coupled with coral disease and human effects, have slowed their recuperation. Coral reefs not only provide an income and food for those who live near them, but are also effective natural barriers against storm surges. Despite the report’s pessimism, researchers see some encouraging signs. Forty-five percent of the world’s reefs are currently in good health and the hope remains that damaged reefs can recover and adjust to the changing conditions.

“We must focus on helping corals to adapt to climate change and on diverting people away from destructive practices such as overfishing,” Linden said.

Rapid decline of macroalgae in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii

The domination of reefs in Kaneohe Bay on the island of Oahu, Hawaii has long served as the most compelling example of the threat posed by nutrient pollution.  Reefs in the bay were dominated by the native green algae Dictyosphaeria cavernosa for nearly 40 years.  The virtual takeover by macroalgae and the subsequent decline of coral cover has long been attributed to local eutrophication (nutrient pollution) caused by sewage discharged into the bay until 1977.  Surprisingly, stopping the sewage discharge failed to substantially reduce the macroalgae, presumably due to a positive feedback that prevented the return to a coral-dominated state.

A new paper by Stimson and Conklin (2008) reports that the algae are finally gone.  After a 42-day period of rains and overcast skies, beginning in February 2006, the cover and biomass of Dictyosphaeria declined dramatically.  Two year later, there was still no recovery.

The cause of the Dictyosphaeria die off is unclear.  Stimson and Conklin attribute it to prolonged low light levels associated with the front.  A series of lab experiments indeed indicates Dictyosphaeria is quite sensitive to low light.  But I wonder if there was another cause; possibly a disease or an outbreak of micrograzers.  Regardless, this is really good news for reefs.  There are a growing number of reports of rapid reef recovery following what were considered to be more or less permanent phase shifts to macroalgal dominance.

In 2003 and 2004 I worked with a group that resurveyed Dairy Bull reef on the north coast of Jamaica (Idjadi 2006).  In the early 1990s when I worked in Jamaica as an undergrad and MS student, like most of the local reefs, Dairy Bull was pretty trashed.  14 years later, coral cover was increasing and macroalgae were on the run.  There still aren’t many fish and I heard that more recent bleaching has knocked the coral back somewhat.  But I am still pleased to see such recovery, especially in places like Jamaica, where there is virtually no local management and intense fishing pressure.  I also met some Palauan scientists at the ICRS meeting who reported that Palau’s reefs are recovering nicely (Golbuu et al. 2007) from the bleaching-induced coral loss we reported in 1998 (Bruno et al. 2001).

I am always on the lookout for this kind of good news.   If you hear about any other examples, please let me know.  We can’t ignore the threats and evidence of decline, but we also have to be clear that there is hope and that we haven’t given up.  (Also see Rich Aronson’s plenary talk at the ICRS link).

Reporting from Heron Island, GBR.   File under “cautious optimism”.

Bruno, J. F., C. E. Siddon, J. D. Witman, P. L. Colin, and M. A. Toscano. 2001. El Niño related coral bleaching in Palau, Western Caroline Islands. Coral Reefs 20:127-136.

Golbuu, Y., S. Victor, L. Penland, D. Idip, C. Emaurois, K. Okaji, H. Yukihira, A. Iwase, and R. van Woesik. 2007. Palau’s coral reefs show differential habitat recovery following the 1998-bleaching event. Coral Reefs 26:319-332.

Idjadi, J. A., S. C. Lee, J. F. Bruno, W. F. Precht, L. Allen-Requa, and P. J. Edmunds. 2006. Rapid phase-shift reversal on a Jamaican coral reef. Coral Reefs 25:209-211

Stimson, J., and E. Conklin. 2008. Potential reversal of a phase shift: the rapid decrease in the cover of the invasive green macroalga Dictyosphaeria cavernosa Forsskål on coral reefs in Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, Hawaii. Coral Reefs 27:717-726.

Climate change pushes coral decline – Western Australian

The Western Australian, 1st December 2008

The world’s marine reserves may be helping to restore local fish populations, but they are failing to protect fragile coral reefs from the harsh effects of global warming, a conference has heard.

Data collected from 8540 coral reefs in the Indian, Caribbean and Pacific regions from 1987 to 2005 show the rate of coral decline with warmer temperatures is just the same in marine reserves as in highly fished areas.

Associate Professor John Bruno from the University of North Carolina in the United States, who conducted the research, has told the Ecological Society’s annual conference the results should sound a warning bell for reef managers who believe marine reserves are more resistant to climate change.

“The biggest stresses put on coral reefs are ocean warming and disease outbreaks,” Mr Bruno told the conference at the University of Sydney on Monday.

“These stresses are regional and global in scale and local protection in marine reserves is unlikely to help these reefs resist such changes.

“Marine reserves are very important for protecting fish populations, maintaining coral reef food webs and protecting against anchor damage, but they are unlikely to reduce coral losses due to global warming,” he added.

The key to restoring and protecting coral from climate change lay in long-term regional and global strategies to combat its root causes, such as carbon dioxide emissions, Mr Bruno said.

The oceans’ acid test: can our reefs be saved? – a note from Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment

The journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment have published an interesting guest editorial article titled “The oceans’ acid test: can our reefs be saved?” by Jacqueline Savitz and Ellycia Harrould-Kolieb:

The climate change dialogue has picked up steam in recent months, but it has largely ignored the oceans, in spite of the tremendous service they provide, by absorbing millions of tons of atmospheric CO2 to buffer climate change. Frontiers and other journals have highlighted the impacts of the resulting ocean acidification, but its consequences demand a lot more attention – not just for the sake of marine ecosystems, but for our own sake as well.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Richard Feely aptly called ocean acidification global warming’s “evil twin”, likely because of the disturbing trend of decreased pH that has begun to occur throughout the world’s oceans. His analogy conjures up a vision of a superhero gone bad, threatening our oceans while society innocently sleeps, which is not so far off.

This “evil twin” has the power to cause a far-reaching extinction of corals, both the tropical and deepwater varieties, along with other calcifying marine organisms, which could lead to an epic disruption of ocean ecosystems in this century. The impacts on society would be widespread, ranging from commercial losses in fisheries and tourism, to lost potential for new, life-saving pharmaceuticals that could be derived from marine species. Over time, the storm protection services provided by reefs would disappear – possibly just when they’re needed most, as global warming increases storm intensity. Ripple effects will be felt throughout the marine ecosystems, as well as among seabirds and even many terrestrial species – not to mention the aesthetic loss of the vast array of intricate, ornate, colorful reef organisms that inspire awe and wonder, and which we bear an ethical responsibility to preserve for future generations.

The need to maintain the economic, ecological, and cultural services that reefs provide has led people to ask, “What will it take for governments to finally do something about it?” Let’s face it – we live on a political planet, where action is driven largely by dollars and votes, and decisions are made based on short-term, not long-term, benefits. So if we want governments to do something about ocean acidification, we need to make clear that our dollars and our votes depend on it.

According to scientists studying climate change, such as Ken Caldeira, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, and Jim Hansen, we need to stabilize our atmospheric CO2 levels at about 350 parts per million to prevent the loss of coral reefs. To do this, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that countries like the US need to reduce emissions by 25–40% below 1990 levels by 2020 – and another 55% reduction from 1990 levels will be required by 2050. So we are talking about the need to convert to a very low carbon economy relatively quickly. This will be no small feat. The carbon we have been pumping into the atmosphere for free until now will cost us, retroactively. And it cannot be free from here on out, if we hope to solve the problem. Nevertheless, there is a lot we can do now.

(Read more at the Ocean Acidification Blog)

Introducing the giant coconut crab

Believe it or not, this isn’t a photoshopped or altered image – the crab the size of a trash can is the ‘coconut crab‘ (Birgus latro), and can be found throughout the equatorial Indo-Pacific region. These incredible 10 legged creatures grow upto a metre in leg span, with large modified claws that split coconut shells and can lift objects upto 30kg in weight. Although technically the coconut crab can be considered a coral reef associated organism (as it’s larval part of its lifecycle is oceanic) the adults can’t swim and spend their entire lives on land, upto 6km from the ocean (via

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority predicting widespread coral bleaching during the summer

Using an experimental algorithm developed from satellite monitoring of sea surface temperatures, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are able to predict (often with some accuracy) the coral bleaching outlook for the upcoming season (for more information on the model itself, see this link).The forecast for the Austral summer (Nov ’08 – Feb ’09) is intensifying, with potential ‘severe bleaching’ predicted in the Northern sectors of the GBR – so much so that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is concerned about the rising sea temperatures.

The area most likely to suffer thermal stress with the potential for severe bleaching during the next 15 weeks is a region spanning Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Far Northern section of the GBR. Less severe thermal stress is a expected in a broader region including all of the Cairns section of the GBR. To the west, the model currently predicts a threat of moderate levels of thermal stress from southern Borneo across through Timor-Leste to southern Papua New Guinea and Torres Strait. This level of potential stress then picks up in the central GBR and east extending across Vanuatu and New Caledonia to the east-southeast of Fiji. Some mild stress may be seen around Madagascar. The greatest warming is expected to begin from late January through February.

It seems that the northern GBR is likely to be affected with the occurence of localised bleaching, but the impact across broader scales (i.e southern GBR) looks less severe. Given that the Bureau of Meterology are predicting a cyclone season “on the upper side of normal“, the impacts of cyclones passing through the coral sea could potentially dissapate the thermal stress build up that triggers coral bleaching (read more). We will keep posting updates on the 2008/2009 season as the bleaching outlook changes.