“Calls for Barrier Reef to be declared disaster area”

Cyclone Hamish [maptype=G_SATELLITE_MAP;gpxview=all]

According to the ABC news website, a number of people including the Queensland Sea Food Industry Association are calling for the southern half of the Great Barrier Reef to be declared a ‘disaster zone’. Reports from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority suggest that >50% of the reef was affected by cyclone hamish, and reports from the commercial fishing operators say that in the wake of cyclone, most commercially viable fish stocks have all but disappeared:

“Half the reef has been completely overturned from Bowen South. It’ll affect tourism, it’ll affect certainly commercial fishers – about 50 per cent or 300 jobs are at risk with 30 guys put off yesterday,” he said.

“There’s just nothing left out there to fish on.”

He says the damage is having a similar effect to Cyclone Larry’s destruction of banana farms three years ago.

“We’ve had our boats out there working this week for the first time after the cyclone and people with 20 years experience can’t recognise the damage being done,” he said.

“Their catches where they’d catch 150 fish a day have been down to five fish a day.”

The Department of Primary Industries says such a disaster declaration would be a first.

But director-general Jim Groves says the circumstances are unusual.

“This is what we call a quota management fishery. These fishermen, some of them have actually paid to go and catch these fish so they’ve paid for a right they no longer have because of a natural disaster, so that’s what makes it different to past events,” he said.

I hadn’t actually got chance to look at the track of the cyclone yet, but after plotting the path above in Google Earth, it looks like the Swains Reefs in the south-eastern GBR took a direct hit whilst hamish was a category 5 (>290km/h wind gusts).

Widespread coral mortality associated with river flood discharge in the Great Barrier Reef

Satellite image from 15 January 2009. Image courtesy of Lachlan McKinna, JCU.

Image 1: Satellite image from 15 January 2009. Image courtesy of Lachlan McKinna, JCU.

Heavy rainfall has been occurring in northern Queensland since December causing widespread flooding of coastal rivers (Burdekin, Haughton, Bohle, Herbert, Tully, O’Connell and others) as well as inland catchments. In some places all-time records were broken, especially around Townsville, and the flows in the Herbert and Burdekin were both far above average (more rain may occur as well).

The river discharge events are being tracked by satellite imagery in collaboration with Arnold Dekker’s group, CSIRO, Canberra and Lachlan McKinna in Michelle Devlin’s flood plume project at JCU. The plumes are noticeable as sediment rich in the early stages (January – image1) and extending out to near Dunk Island but colour rich (chlorophyll and coloured dissolved organic matter) in the latter stages (February – image 2) extending completely across the main reef and into the Coral Sea.

The plumes are being sampled via the GBRMPA – Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, Marine Monitoring Program run by the Catchment to Reef Group, ACTFR, JCU (Michelle Devlin coordinator) and AIMS (Britta Schaffelke). Sampling from both fixed installations and vessel surveys have been going since December.

Satellite image from 18 February 2009. Image courtesy of Arnold Dekker, CSIRO.

Image 2: from 18 February 2009. Image courtesy of Arnold Dekker, CSIRO.

Incidentally to the plume monitoring, reports from many scientists working on the reef in the area between Mackay and Cooktown have been coming in of coral ‘bleaching’ and mortality, ‘fresh’ water layers, turbid water layers, green water and stratified water. Corals in poor condition have been reported by Katharina Fabricius (Dunk Island and surrounds), Sheriden Morris (Frankland group), Angus Thompson (Pandora, Palms, Whitsundays), Michelle Devlin, Jane Waterhouse and David Haynes (Dunk and surrounds), Britta Schaffelke (Franklands, High, Fitzroy, Pandora and others), Ray Berkelmans (Magnetic Island), Stephen Lewis and Brett Baker (Burdekin plume).


Image 3: Coral mortality at Russell Island (Franklands group) 24 February 2009. Photo: Britta Schaffelke, AIMS.

Images of white/dead coral from Franklands can be seen in image 3 and white bommies from surface near Dunk Island and the Family Group in image 4. Ongoing monitoring is being coordinated by David Wachenfeld and his team at GBRMPA.

Coral mortality and ‘bleaching’ is widespread on inner-shelf reefs in the above region. I put ‘bleaching’ in commas as this event is probably not mostly normal bleaching i.e. expulsion of zooxanthellae, but rather actual death of the coral organism. This is obviously somewhat speculative but consistent with observations of coral mortality in low salinity water by van Woesik and others after similar events in 1991 in the Keppel Islands.


Image 4: White coral bommies at Coombe Island (Family Group) 5 March 2009. Photo: Jane Waterhouse, ACTFR.

The coral mortality is no doubt associated with the long period (more than 8 weeks) of low salinity flood water but other factors such as elevated suspended sediment, nutrients and pesticides may also be important. Water temperatures were also above average in the period before the floods and an element of combined stress may also be important. Disentangling the separate and combined effects of the multiple stresses and their role in the coral mortality will be a major challenge.

Cyclone Hamish dissipates

After threatening to cross land in as a category 4 cyclone with winds >200km/hr, Cyclone Hamish made a dramatic turn westwards and is now winding down towards a Category 1 cyclone out into the Pacific Ocean. After the damage caused by Cyclone Larry in 2006, it seems that South-East Queensland can breath a sigh of relief after evacuation warnings were issued from Bundaberg to Hervey Bay. No news yet on the impact of the cyclone on the reef, although the earlier (March 8th) the cyclone crossed within the marine park, between the mainland and the Swains Reefs as a category 4, and narrowly missed the Whitsunday Islands. More reports and hopefully photographs as they come.

Cyclone Hamish update


It seems like Cyclone Hamish has taken an unexpected turn eastwards, with the eye of the storm now projected to miss the Capricorn Bunker islands. Heron Island and other coral islands have been evacuated, and residents across the Bundaberg – Hervey Bay region are bracing themselves for the impact as Hamish crosses the in the next 48hrs. The impact of a category 4/5 cyclone on the Great Barrier Reef is likely to be huge – especially as Hamish has tracked parallel to the coastline for over 1000km, straight over the outer reef. The midshelf reefs at Mackay are currently being hit by 6m waves, and Flinders Reef near the eye of the storm recorded 154km/hr winds. More updates as they come keep – meanwhile keep an eye on the Bureau of Meteorology homepage, Earth Snapshot and the Weatherzone forums for up to the minute info.

Update @ 7.55pm:

Looks like the Bureau of Meteorology weather station at Creal Reef (directly in the path of the Hurricane) has been destroyed – the last recorded gust at 1.02pm was 189km/hr!


Queensland bracing for category 5 Cyclone ‘Hamish’

Only two weeks ago, 60% of Queensland was inundated with flood waters, whilst the south of Australia was hit by record high temperatures and bushfires. Now, the Queensland coastline is currently under cyclone watch as Cyclone Hamish is pushing south along the Great Barrier Reef, and has intensified to a category 5 cyclone, with winds reaching above 280kmh and waves >7m.

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Cyclone Hamish missed the Whitsunday Islands, instead heading offshore and weakening to a category 4, but has now veered south-easterly and is currently heading towards the Capricorn Bunker group, directly in the path of Heron Island Research Station. More updates as they come – although no one is certain when the cyclone will cross the coastline, the news are predicting an impact similar if not larger than Cyclone Larry (the last cat 5 cyclone to cross the coast) in 2006.


Manta rays


2008 was the year that scientists realised that the humble manta ray (Manta birostris) might not be a a solitary species as initially thought. First described by the naturalist Johann Julius Walbaum back in 1792, the manta ray grows in excess of 7.6m (>25ft) and weighs up to 2300kg (~5,000lbs) – about 4/5ths of the weight of a Hummer SUV.

Andrea Marshall, a PhD student at the University of Queensland has been studying the ecology of manta rays in Mozambique for over 5 years, and his since identified over 900 individuals. Using genetic and morphological markers, her research showed that there are at least two different species of manta ray: the smaller common manta ray (as in the above video clip) specific to coastlines and coral reefs around the globe, and a second larger species of manta ray that is more elusive, and has broad migratory habits.

As Andrea points out, manta populations are frequently small in size, and intense fishing pressure can threaten the stability of local populations in a few years. The more common manta ray is particularly susceptible to unsustainable localised fishing pressures due to their restricted migratory ranges, whilst the larger migratory species causes problems with population estimates and conservation management to it’s broad home range. Manta rays are in increasing danger from the effects of fishing, and cartilidge and branchial plates (the characteristic mandibles or ‘lobes’ that protrude from the mouth) are sold for upto $50USD per kilo in Asia.

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I filmed the video at the top whilst on fieldwork in the central Great Barrier Reef last year. The two manta rays (the smaller ‘common’ type) were feeding on an upwelling of plankton off the edge of the reef crest, and were happy for us to swim between them without being disturbed. Visit the homepage of the the Manta Ray & Whale Shark Research Centre in Mozambique to read more about the conservation and protection of these amazing creatures, or check out their blog (“The latest news on the biggest fishes“) over at wordpress

Declining calcification on the Great Barrier Reef – Radio Interview

Glen De’ath and Katherina Fabricius, two co-authors from the recent science paper on the decline in coral calcification on the Great Barrier Reef were interviewed by Australian ABC radio this afternoon. Listen online below, or read on after the jump for a transcript.


update: fixed the link to the correct interview.
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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.


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.