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Scientists Issue Climate Change Alert for Australia's Great Barrier Reef

  • Phil Mercer

FILE - Dried coral lies on a beach as the sun sets on Lady Elliot Island, 80 kilometers northeast of Bundaberg in Queensland, Australia, June 10, 2015.

New research warns that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef can be saved only if urgent steps are taken to tackle climate change. The study, published in the journal Nature, says parts of the world’s largest coral system will never fully recover from repeated bleaching, caused by spikes in the water temperature.

The Great Barrier Reef faces localized threats, such as the run-off of pesticides from farms and overfishing, but scientists believe its future depends on immediate efforts to reduce global warming.

Worst bleaching on record

They say last year’s bleaching of large parts of the reef was the worst on record. There’s evidence that a similar event is occurring this year. Corals begin to starve once they bleach, the main cause of which is heat stress resulting from high sea temperatures.

The world heritage body, UNESCO, has threatened to put the Great Barrier Reef on its in danger list because of mounting concerns over its health.

In response, Australia’s Queensland state government released a discussion paper to look at ways to improve water quality on the reef, which is contaminated by fertilizers and pesticides from farms near the coast.

Nick Casule from the environment group Greenpeace says while localized threats must be addressed, so must the broader issue of climate change.

'Warming killing the reef'

“Poor water quality is a huge threat to the health of the Great Barrier Reef,” Casule said. “There is no denying that, and that comes from activities like agriculture and agricultural run-off into the reef. It also comes from activities like the industrial ports that are all up and down the Queensland coastline, but they can’t be viewed in isolation. At the core of that has to be the recognition that global warming is what is killing the reef.”

The Great Barrier Reef stretches for 2,300 kilometers down Australia’s northeast coast. It is home to a wondrous array of wildlife, including more than 130 species of sharks, 500 types of worms and 1,600 varieties of fish.

The reef pumps more than $4 billion into the Australian economy and employs 63,000 people mostly in the tourism industry, although some travel groups believe the damage inflicted on the coral system has been exaggerated, which has, in turn, seen many travelers from Europe and the United States cancel their trips.

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