SYDNEY (AP) — It was the silence of the sea that first shook the snorkeling teenager, followed by a sense of horror as she saw the coral below had been drained of its kaleidoscopic color . This once vibrant site on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – a site she had previously likened to a bustling capital – had become a ghost town, the victim of another mass bleaching event.
On this day in 2020, Ava Shearer came out of the water and cried. Now, with the release of a United Nations climate report that paints a dire picture of the future of the Great Barrier Reef, the now 17-year-old marine science student and snorkeling guide years, wonders what will be left of the endangered ecosystem as she graduates from Australia’s James Cook University.
“It really worries me,” says Shearer, who grew up along the World Heritage-listed natural wonder off Australia’s northeast coast. “I’m afraid there’s nothing for me to study.”
The world has much to fear in Monday’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which states bluntly that the Great Barrier Reef is in crisis and suffering severe impacts from climate change, with frequent and severe coral bleaching caused by warming ocean temperatures. . The worst bleaching event, in 2016, affected more than 90% of the reef, and a succession of bleaching incidents left the northern and middle part of the reef system in a “highly degraded state”, according to the report.
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on the planet – so large, in fact, that it is the only living thing on earth visible from space. It stretches for 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) and is home to more than 1,500 species of tropical fish, as well as dolphins, whales, birds and even century-old giant clams. Before the pandemic, it contributed A$6.4 billion ($4.6 billion) to the economy annually, largely through tourism, and generally supports around 64,000 jobs.
That bleaching will continue along the reef is a virtual certainty, according to the IPCC. Perhaps even more worryingly, the report suggests that it may simply be too late to stop bleaching altogether. Even if the global community achieved its goal of limiting future warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, that would still not be enough to prevent more frequent mass bleaching events, although that this may reduce their occurrence, the IPCC has found.
The report predicts that warming oceans and marine heatwaves will lead to the loss and degradation of shallow tropical coral reefs, leading to “widespread destruction” of coral reef ecosystems. The report points to three previous mass bleaching events from 2016 to 2020 that caused significant coral loss, and warns that there has been “mass mortality” of some coral species.
For those struggling to understand how devastating the bleaching is, diver Tony Fontes compares it to a forest fire under the ocean. Fontes, who recently retired after 40 years as a diving instructor on the Great Barrier Reef, remembers diving on recently bleached reefs and swimming in water that had turned milky white from dead coral tissue. He would come out covered in drool.
“You’re sitting on the boat trying to wash it down and you realize you’ve just swum across a reef that a few weeks ago was full of life and vibrant and now a bushfire has crossed and the coral is dead, and the rest of the marine life will just have to move or die,” he says. “It’s a really, really sad and heartbreaking experience.”
Yet despite the looming threat in its own backyard, Australia has fallen behind other wealthy nations in its performance and commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, a climate think tank ranked Australia as the worst climate performer among comparable developed nations since nations pledged in the 2015 Paris climate accord to limit global warming .
The issue is politically tense in Australia, which is one of the world’s largest exporters of coal and liquefied natural gas, and one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita due to its heavy reliance on oil. coal electricity. Last month the government pledged to spend an additional A$1 billion over nine years to improve the health of the reef, but critics have argued the money will do nothing to cope with rising temperatures in the ocean, the main threat to coral.
The consequences of inaction go beyond the ecology to the economy: if the bleaching persists, the IPCC estimates that 10,000 jobs and 1 billion Australian dollars in income would be lost each year due to the decline in tourism alone. .
About a billion people around the world depend on coral reefs for their daily lives, says Scott Heron, professor of physics and expert in reef science at James Cook University. That is why, he says, a failure to urgently reduce greenhouse gas emissions could have devastating effects for humanity.
“It’s going to affect real people and real people’s lives,” Heron says. “It is going to be a massive change not only for Australians, but also for people who make a living from reef services. And so we really put that in a framework of endangering human life.
Beyond the reef, the report warns that climate change will lead to increased heat-related deaths in Australia, the extinction of some animal species and more wildfires. Koalas are threatened with local extinction due to increasing drought and rising temperatures, the IPCC has said. And rising sea levels and storm surges led to the recent extinction of a rodent species called Bramble Cay melomys, which lived on a remote cay north of the Great Barrier Reef, the report says. .
The frequency and severity of dangerous wildfire conditions are already increasing, in part due to climate change, the IPCC said, citing the catastrophic “black summer” fires of late 2019 and early 2020 that have killed at least 33 people and destroyed over 3,000 homes. Even Australia’s famous eucalyptus trees, which are naturally resistant to the country’s seasonal fires, may not be able to withstand the ferocity and frequency of predicted fires, which could lead to the decimation of forests, the IPCC has warned. .
“We’re seeing conditions that weren’t really projected for decades…and yet they’re appearing just about now, and so to some extent we may well be underestimating the risks associated with things like fires” , says the Vice-Chair of the IPCC. -Chair Mark Howden, Director of the Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions at the Australian National University.
Yet despite the dire predictions, Howden urges Australians not to lose hope and instead focus on solutions, primarily by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also by reducing other reef stressors such than overfishing. The report also provides comprehensive lists of climate adaptation strategies, such as improving building standards so homes stay cooler during life-threatening heat waves.
“Does this report identify whole areas that Australians should be concerned about? Absolutely, and it would be hard to underestimate the comprehensiveness and significance of these impacts,” says Howden. “Does that also paint a whole series of things that we can act on that mitigate against worst-case scenarios in the future? Absoutely.”
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