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Great Barrier Reef on Brink of Further Mass Bleaching After ‘Shocking’ Marine Heat

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent US$700-million pledge for reef protection is a distraction from his reef-killing fossil agenda, environmentalists say, as scientists warn that another mass bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef is imminent after record-high marine temperatures in the spring.

Scientists from America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are warning that unprecedented heat in the waters surrounding the 2,300-kilometre Reef from mid-September to mid-December have left the deeply-stressed ecosystem in immediate peril of another mass bleaching event—its sixth since 1998, writes Guardian Australia in an exclusive report.

Dr. William Skirving, senior research scientist at NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch, said his team was “surprised, shocked and concerned” when its analysis was completed. Years ago, similar analysis brought a team of Australian scientists to tears.

“I showed the results of aerial surveys of #bleaching on the #GreatBarrierReef to my students. And then we wept,” ARC Centre Director Terry Hughes tweeted at the time.

But now, “there’s never been heat stress like that in our records,” Skirving told The Guardian. “It’s completely out of character and speaks to the fact that the minimum temperatures were higher than the previous maximums. This is almost certainly a climate change signal.”

Citing the NOAA analysis, The Guardian reports that “the reef headed into the summer with ‘more accumulated heat than ever before’,” conditions that bode ill for corals because heat destroys the symbiotic relationship between corals and algae—their primary food source and main source of colour.

While they can survive such bleaching (and, hence, starvation), corals will emerge “weaker, more susceptible to disease, and reproduce less in the following years.” 

And the Great Barrier Reef may be in its greatest peril yet. The NOAA analysis found that average mid-December temperatures “were at least 0.5°C hotter than the corresponding period for any previous summer when the reef bleached.”

As news of the NOAA findings emerged, and with national elections coming up this spring, the fossil-friendly Morrison government was pledging AU$1billion ($US700 million) for reef conservation should it be re-elected.

With its focus on preventing water pollution, WWF Australia’s oceans head Richard Leck said the pledge was “positive news” for the country’s national icon, but that the money must be complemented with “real action on climate to drive down emissions this decade.”

Greenpeace Australia’s Martin Zavan agreed, declaring it “astounding that the Morrison government plans to allocate so much money to the Reef while ignoring the number-one driver of its decline—climate change caused by burning fossil fuels.”

A separate international team of marine scientists from the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia studied the threat global heating poses to reef systems that are still well enough protected from marine heat waves to allow corals the 10 or more years they need to recover from a bleaching event. Known as “thermal refugia,” these spots of reef resilience will all but vanish once global heating exceeds 1.5°C, the researchers report in the new journal PLOS Climate.

At present, 84% of coral reefs are located in regions where conditions allow them to withstand the impact of marine heat waves, writes Carbon Brief. This percentage will plunge to 0.2% once global heating breaches 1.5°C.

“There is no safe warming limit for coral reefs—action on climate change causes this decade is critical, ” said study lead author Adele Dixon, a PhD researcher at the Priestley International Centre for Climate Change at the University of Leeds.

Reef protectors also pointed to the timing of Morrison’s announcement, just days before a February 1 deadline to submit a Great Barrier Reef progress report to UNESCO. 

Last year, UNESCO science advisors recommended the reef be classified as endangered, a categorization which would require Canberra to take more aggressive steps to protect the ecosystem.

“Only an intense lobbying effort by the Australian government” prevented the “in danger” categorization, writes BNN Bloomberg, adding that the UN downgraded the long-term outlook of the reef from “poor” to “very poor” in June.

Queensland Green Party senator Larissa Waters decried the Morrison government’s sudden move to position itself as a champion of the corals. “A belated cash splash on the Great Barrier Reef is a joke from a government that has turbo-charged the climate crisis, imperilling the reef by giving billions to fossil fuels and backing new coal and gas,” she told The Guardian.