As mass bleaching continues to devastate large swathes of the Great Barrier Reef, scientists are fast losing hope that the world’s largest living organism can be saved in its entirety.
Conceding that climate change will “inevitably” cause the decline of the reef’s overall health in the coming decades, reef experts have started talking about a possible “Plan B” — a strategy that won’t save the reef as a whole, but may at least ensure that it doesn’t disappear completely.
This pessimistic shift in tone is striking. Just two years ago, the Australian and Queensland state governments released the Reef 2050 Plan, officials’ long-term sustainability plan detailing how to best preserve the reef and ensure that it “continues to improve on its outstanding universal values.” The message was relatively upbeat: The iconic reef was very much not dead, and in fact could get better and better as a “natural wonder” in the decades to come.
But now, with back-to-back mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 causing large swathes of the Great Barrier Reef’s corals to die, some members of the Reef 2050 advisory committee, a group of scientists and experts tasked with implementing the government’s plan, have raised doubts about its feasibility. At a recent committee meeting, two experts, both hailing from government science agencies, said that “improving the natural heritage values of the reef was no longer possible,” reported The Guardian.
The experts, who spoke to the paper on the condition of anonymity, said the plan’s aim should be tweaked to something “more achievable.” The reef will “inevitably” be damaged because of global warming, they said, but perhaps its “ecological function” could be maintained.
“The concept of ‘maintaining ecological function’ refers to the balance of ecological processes necessary for the reef ecosystem as a whole to persist, but perhaps in a different form, noting the composition and structure may differ from what is currently seen today,” a spokesperson for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, where one of the two experts is based, told The Guardian.
Earlier this month, another group of reef experts ― the Great Barrier Reef Independent Expert Panel, an advisory group also tasked with implementing the Reef 2050 plan ― echoed that sentiment.
In a communiqué published on May 5, the group said that “coral bleaching since early 2016 has changed the Reef fundamentally.”
“There is great concern about the future of the Reef, and the communities and businesses that depend on it,” the statement read, “but hope still remains for maintaining ecological function over the coming decades.”
The Great Barrier Reef has myriad functions, including providing a habitat for hundreds of fish and other species, protecting coastlines and acting as a draw for tourism. According to a 2013 report by consultancy firm Deloitte Access Economics, the reef contributes almost $4 billion to the Australian economy each year and supports almost 70,000 jobs.
The Great Barrier Reef may never be the same again, but action can ― and must ― be taken to salvage what can still be saved, experts say. Both the Independent Expert Panel and the Reef 2050 advisory committee have said tackling climate change is central to this effort.
Despite these experts’ concerns, however, the Reef 2050 plan does not currently address the importance of curbing greenhouse gases to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Criticizing this omission on the part of the federal and Queensland governments, some conservationists have accused officials of wanting to have their cake and eat it too.
“The government wants to have coal mines operating in 60 years’ time, and still hopes to have a healthy reef,” Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Center of Excellence for Integrated Coral Reef Studies and a member of the Independent Expert Panel, told The Conversation in 2015.
An example is a proposed $16 billion coal mine in Queensland, which would be located near Great Barrier Reef. If completed, the mine would cover more than 170 square miles (or about 80,000 football fields). Government officials have insisted the project won’t negatively impact the reef and will create thousands of domestic jobs. Conservationists, however, have called this rationale “nonsense.”
“[In] our lifetime and on our watch, substantial areas of the Great Barrier Reef and the surrounding ecosystems are experiencing major long-term damage which may be irreversible unless action is taken now,” the Independent Expert Panel said in its communiqué. “The planet has changed in a way that science informs us is unprecedented in human history. While that in itself may be cause for action, the extraordinary rapidity of the change we now observe makes action even more urgent.”
Climate change has been linked to the ongoing and record-breaking mass bleaching wreaking havoc on coral reefs worldwide. Since late 2014, higher-than-normal water temperatures have stressed corals in every major coral region on Earth, triggering the most widespread and longest-ever coral bleaching event in recorded history.
Some reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, have been hit by repeated bleaching ― a phenomenon in which stressed corals expel a symbiotic algae from their tissues, leaving them more vulnerable to disease and death.
Hughes said earlier this year that two-thirds of corals in the Great Barrier Reef’s northern section had died in back-to-back bleaching events in 2016 and 2017. A study published by the ARC Center of Excellence for Integrated Coral Reef Studies in March concluded that parts of the reef will never fully recover from the damage they’ve recently endured.
“The chances of the northern Great Barrier Reef returning to its pre-bleaching assemblage structure are slim given the scale of damage that occurred in 2016 and the likelihood of a fourth bleaching event occurring within the next decade or two as global temperatures continue to rise,” said the study.
In a statement released on Monday, Queensland officials said further coral decline in the Great Barrier Reef is expected through 2017.