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Reefs at risk- How temperature, policy, and energy needs are harming the Great Barrier Reef

One of the biggest environmental questions facing our society today is this: Is our reliance on fossil fuels leading to the destruction of natural beauty (and natural resources).

If you are a reader of The New York Times, then perhaps you have already seen this amazing piece. It’s a killer piece of long-form written to discuss the lawsuits surrounding the BP Gulf Oil spill and funding for Louisiana’s groundbreaking Coastal Master Plan. Did you know that oil and gas companies have spent about 100 years and millions of dollars to dig canals in the southern part of Louisiana? This is the same land that is a very important barrier to protect New Orleans and other areas of the state from hurricane storm surge. Did you also know that land is receding at an alarming rate in Louisiana (for a variety or reasons, including rising sea level)? Surely, you’ve seen this figure before:

Source: NYT

Top left: Land in 1984,   Top right: land in 2014,   Bottom left: Land in 2014 with losses in color,   Bottom right: Colored areas are area of land lost since 1984          Source: NYT


This image is striking and alarming. I encourage you to read the article. It’s one of the better pieces I’ve seen this year.

The U.S. isn’t the only country that is facing significant natural losses due to policy surrounding fossil fuel development. Australia is also fighting to preserve it’s most iconic natural resource: The Great Barrier Reef (GBR), a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the 7 wonders of the natural world. The GBR is a fascinating place and is home to a huge portion of shallow ocean biodiversity. It also brings in tons of money from tourism and is the only formation produced by animals that can be seen from space consistently (large phytoplankton blooms are episodic but can also been seen from space). Basically it’s super cool. If you’ve never been there, parts of it look like this:



and this:



It’s a beautiful, diverse, and economically important place. Western Pacific fisheries are dependent on the reef as a nursery for juveniles and all nations around the reef depend on it to provide a huge portion of GDP (through tourism and fishing). This magnificent reef just happens to sit very near to a massive coal deposit. This is no coincidence if you know how coal, oil, and natural gas are formed (long term degradation of organic matter in low/no oxygen environments). In any case, the coal formation in question is a massive part of Australia’s economy. They export tons of coal each year to places such as India, as India is nearby and has a huge demand for coal. Economically, it makes sense for them to export, but doing so is potentially shortsighted due to the dangers of damaging an already fragile reef system. Due to climate change, particularly, warming trends, the GBR is facing significant die offs and coral cover is declining at an alarming rate. This trend doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon, as global temperatures are still being reported to be the highest they have been in 4,000 years  and Australia is currently facing a Spring heatwave of unprecedented longevity and scope. On top of all of that, this year is proving to be an El Nino year that has already caused massive coral bleaching events in areas of Hawaii that are not usually prone to such events. To make matters even worse, we may see another El Nino year (positive ENSO for those scientists out there)next year, which will just pile on the stress.

So in light of all of that, we would hope that in order to sustain one of the most important pieces of biodiversity (and one of the most important pieces of it’s own economy), Australia would be making policy to protect this reef as well as attempt to limit fossil fuel emissions. Unfortunately, this is not really the case. A few months back the expansion of Abbot Point coal port was approved. This port is near the GBR and when the expansion was approved, dumping of dredgings was approved withing the GBR national park area. Dredings are basically just mud and sediment from the bottom that are discarded when a canal is widened or deepened. This sediment makes the water cloudy and disrupts corals from getting their two main sources of energy: photosynthetic light, and feeding. Turbidity blocks some of the light and particles of sediment can clog the small mouths of feeding coral polyps. This effect may prove devastating to the reef if added to all of the other negative stressors currently bombarding the reef (Kathleen wrote a great piece about Abbot Point back in May). Luckily, there was a backlash about this dumping and there is now a proposal in place to dump dredgings on land (though it has not yet been approved). In any case, large ships will be passing in and out of the reef area, something that has already been shown to be rather damaging (via sewage dumping and wave action).

Here’s why we have an issue:

(Source: BBC news)

(Source: BBC news)

Carmichael Mine is massive ( 7 times the size of Sydney Harbor, which is rather gigantic in it’s own right). Hay Point and Abbot Point are the only ports of call for exporting ships to come in and get coal to ship abroad, which is a huge part of Australia’s economy (60 million tonnes of coal each year to India via this mine for the next 60 years). There is a lot of money to made here, but it’s at a big cost. The ships must navigate the GBR region, dumping waste, potentially losing some of their cargo, creating large waves, and maybe even causing the dumping of lots and lots of sediment into the reef area. Australia’s Prime Minister has called for people to stop demonizing coal, but this project, combined with larger scale global patterns of stress that are much more difficult to control, have the potential to destroy the GBR. People have a right to be upset about that.

The answers to our greatest environmental (and social) problems are never cut and dry. This one is no different. Our heavy reliance on fossil fuels may be our undoing someday, and cutting emissions is key to our future, but it will not be easy. There are so many political and economic considerations. You can’t tell a country to abandon a major part of it’s economy without giving them an option to replace it with something that is at least equally viable (ie: Australia). You also cannot tell a developing nation like India to stop developing and industrializing because it is harmful to the planet. Our country and many others were afforded that liberty. Improved quality of life is never a bad thing from a human perspective. This is a very difficult issue that we are constantly dealing with every single day and we will likely continue this trend for the foreseeable future. It is important that we do our part as scientists who are invested in this issue to give back and try to educate those around us so that we may figure out a solution in the long run.

I encourage you to click on the embedded links above for more information on all facets of this story. Thank for reading!

2 thoughts on “Reefs at risk- How temperature, policy, and energy needs are harming the Great Barrier Reef

  1. Thanks for reading! MPAs are great, but they can’t solve all of our problems. I’m looking forward to continuing my own research to help with this issue and I know many other scientists are doing the same.


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