Scientists shocked at Great Barrier Reef bleaching

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Satellite image of a part of the Great Barrier Reef. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Scientists say Australia's hot summer has had a devastating effect on Queensland's Great Barrier Reef. Coral reef specialists are comparing the severity of the damage to the worst case ever recorded in 2002.

University of Queensland scientists say they were shocked by the reef's condition and are concerned the entire reef may be at risk of destruction from global warming.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg said most of the reefs they saw were completely bleached. "Going down to 10 metres, every piece of coral was a glowing white colour - all that brown colour had disappeared and that was surprising for us," he said.

Australian Conservation Foundation's Don Henry is worried. "The important thing from this warning is that we're starting to see this damage to the reef from warmer waters and climate change happen more often and more extensive," he said. "There's going to be a point when the reef just doesn't recover."

With February, the hottest month, just ahead, this is a critical time. The last severe cases of bleaching occurred in 1998 and 2002, the last leaving more than 5 percent of the reef destroyed.

Professor Hoegh-Guldberg, a renowned coral expert, said he was amazed at the damage to corals on the Keppel islands. "Corals at the Keppels are completely bleached and we are only halfway through January," he said.

The Great Barrier Reef is a big attraction for Australia’s tourism industry, which employs 6 per cent of the country’s workforce and contributes 12 per cent of exports. Paul Marshall, manager of the Great Barrier Reef marine park said "We are going to be pretty lucky to escape coral deaths in the southern Great Barrier Reef."

The Reef's future looks even darker following a report by climate scientists. The United Kingdom Meteorological Office report, Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, suggests that a two-degree warming would also see 97 percent of the world's coral reefs lost, lower crop yields, put 2.8 billion people at risk of water shortage and the total loss of summer Arctic Sea ice, sparking the extinction of the polar bear and walrus.