Dec. 6, The New York Times on protecting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef:
Coral reefs are among the most remarkable achievements of nature, structures built in shallow water over long periods of time out of the skeletons of tiny polyps. Magnificent in their bright colors, they cover less than 0.2 percent of the oceans and yet are second only to rain forests in the biodiversity they support, including a quarter of all marine life. And they’re in deep trouble.
The problem is that reefs can live in only a fairly narrow temperature range, and climate change, when combined with other natural phenomena, can starve the coral polyps to death. That’s what has now happened, according to data released last week by Australian scientists: El Niño — a periodic heating of the Pacific Ocean — combined with global warming to cause mass bleaching throughout the 1,400-mile Great Barrier Reef, which extends off Australia’s northeast coast.
Bleaching occurs when warm waters prompt the coral polyps to reject the algae that live on them and provide them with nutrients — and their bright colors. When water temperatures drop in time, the algae return and the reef revives. But if temperatures stay high too long, as they did this year, the corals start to die off.
The data was released just before the Australian government issued a report to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco, which has proclaimed the Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage Site. The report was meant to reassure Unesco that the risks to the reef were being well managed under a 35-year plan Australia produced last year outlining measures to limit sediment, chemical runoff and other threats.
The report was not wholly reassuring. For one thing, it ignored the Queensland state government’s decision to permit development of the enormous (and enormously controversial) Carmichael coal mine about 200 miles from the reef. Environmentalists have furiously opposed the mine for various reasons, but chiefly for the enormous quantities of carbon dioxide pollution it would produce.
In the final reckoning, it is these and other human-caused emissions that pose the greatest danger to reefs everywhere. Of these, the Great Barrier Reef is among the most spectacular. It is hard to understand how Australia can claim “good progress” on protecting it even as it proceeds with a project that poses so clear and imminent a threat.
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