In the shallow waters off Cape York Peninsula’s east coast, the Great Barrier Reef is in the midst of a severe bleaching event, the worst in 15 years. Meanwhile, Tasmania still reels from fires of unprecedented severity that reduced ancient forests to charcoal. Tragically, we knew both events were highly likely, yet we failed to act.
In 2008, the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society prepared a preliminary assessment on the implications of climate change on Australia’s World Heritage areas. Understandably, the natural values would be hardest hit, particularly those associated with habitats already in decline.
That report warned that the increased frequency and intensity of fire, drought, cyclones, flooding and bleaching events would have significant impact across many of Australia’s 19 World Heritage-listed properties.
Today, several months of hot and still waters in the Coral Sea combined with a weak monsoon have resulted in some of the worst conditions for coral bleaching in decades.
Coral bleaching is changing the Great Barrier Reef. As bleaching events occur more frequently, adding to ongoing impacts of pollution and sediments run-off, recovery becomes much harder. Now, the most healthy and intact section of the reef is cooking in the heat.
This week the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority upgraded its alert system to level three, the highest category. This category means the mortality of the reef is threatened and tragically, we already know some of the coral will die from this bleaching event.
Until recently, Cape York’s section of the Great Barrier Reef had escaped the worst excesses of development. However, with an escalation in land clearing, instream mining and agricultural development things look set to worsen in the Normanby Basin – the region’s largest reef catchment.
Flowing into Princess Charlotte Bay, sediment from the Normanby River can reach the outer reef during periods of high flow. This is precisely the area that has moved into the level three alert for coral bleaching this week.
Across Australia, the impact of climate change is compounded with existing environmental stressors such as land degradation, introduced species and habitat loss. When combined with El Nino events, this is often devastating and events such as a severe wildfire can push species to extinction and ecosystems to collapse.
From Tasmania to the Torres Strait, this summer’s below average rainfall and above average temperatures can be felt across Australia’s other World Heritage properties. Here in the Wet Tropics where I live, the amount of cloud-free days is increasing with consequences for the rainforests and its globally significant flora and fauna.
ANU’s report from 2008 runs through Australia’s list of World Heritage properties, identifying natural and cultural values at risk from climate change. We stand to lose rainforest along the Great Dividing Range, mountain-top refugia that is home to some of the world’s rarest species and the coastal wetlands of Kakadu and Shark Bay to name just a few.
As University of Tasmania scientist Professor David Bowman recently said in response to Tasmania’s fires, this is what climate change looks like. It is the blackened stumps of pencil pines and the ghostly white of bleached coral.
Yet government leadership is still lacking – and the planned development of the Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin will only lead to more of the same. If the Turnbull government is serious about addressing climate change and protecting the places we love, we would be banning new coal, not developing it.
Right now, faced with such starkly contrasting events, the need to end our reliance on polluting, non-renewable fossil fuels has never been so clear or pressing.