Great Barrier Reef bleaching stats are bad enough without media misreporting

Jon C. Day, James Cook University

The widespread bleaching event occurring across the Great Barrier Reef is unprecedented in scale and severity. It has rightly gained global media attention. Sadly, however, some of the headlines it has generated are factually incorrect or misleading:

Half of Great Barrier Reef “dead or dying” (ITV News)

Coral are bleaching along the entire Great Barrier Reef (Ars Technica)

Climate change has destroyed 93% of the Great Barrier Reef (RedOrbit)

The aerial surveys

Most of the recent international coverage was based on a press release from the ARC Centre for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University. It explained how comprehensive aerial surveys were undertaken on “911 individual reefs … along the full 2,300 km length of the Great Barrier Reef. Of all the reefs we surveyed, only 7% (68 reefs) have escaped bleaching entirely”

The ARC survey assessed nearly one-third of all of the coral reefs on the Great Barrier Reef – a huge sample, analogous to polling 8 million Australians to find out their voting intentions. Underwater teams of scientific divers have confirmed the accuracy of these aerial surveys and are continuing to measure the ongoing impact of the bleaching.

The map below highlights the differences in bleaching patterns between the reef’s northern and southern sections.

Results of aerial surveys along the length of the Great Barrier Reef.
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

It is important to recognise that if bleaching was observed on a reef, this does not mean a particular reef has entirely bleached. Indeed, 45% of the reefs assessed had 30% or less bleaching. In the southern section, only 1% of reefs were categorised as “severely bleached”.

Make no mistake: what is happening is very serious. But to state that “climate change has destroyed 93% of the Great Barrier Reef” is a misrepresentation of the situation.

Perhaps the more accurate way to frame the results (and indeed the wording used in the media release) is to say that only 7% of the coral reefs across the Great Barrier Reef have completely avoided bleaching. The situation is bad enough even when sticking to the facts.

There is clear evidence of the extent and severity of the bleaching, which supports the conclusion that the reef is experiencing the worst bleaching event ever seen. The northern half has been hit the hardest, with about 80% categorised as severely bleached.

The exact extent of bleaching varies from reef to reef.
Chris Jones

The context

Part of the problem is that while many people around the world have heard of the Great Barrier Reef, few know enough about it to put such confronting headlines into context. For instance, it is important to understand the extent to which coral reefs form part of the much larger World Heritage Area.

Most of the articles accompanying the above headlines don’t clarify the following key points:

  • the World Heritage Area is the size of Italy or Malaysia, but only around 10% of this area is comprised of coral reefs.

  • more than 3,000 separate coral reefs collectively comprise the Great Barrier Reef, and these extend north into the Torres Strait, outside the boundaries of both the GBR Marine Park and the World Heritage Area.

  • the surveys show a mixed picture of very severe, moderate and little bleaching that changes dramatically from north to south along the 2,300 km length of the reef.

  • a bleached coral is not necessarily a dead coral, and the true extent of dead coral across the Great Barrier Reef will only become clear over the coming months.

  • while coral reefs are a key component of the ecosystem, they are not the only habitats suffering from the impacts of climate change.

Anemones have been bleaching too.
Justin Marshall/CoralWatch

Tourism in damage control

At the other end of the scale, some tourism operators and politicians have questioned the impacts of the bleaching, claiming that the effects are overstated.

This has given rise to a social media campaign involving pictures of healthy corals posted under the #GBRtoday hashtag, and has generated headlines such as:

Tourism industry pushes back against bleaching claims (Radio 4CA)

Tourism officials not panicking about coral bleaching on Far North Queensland reefs (Cairns Post)

An independent survey by tour operators using federal funding was co-ordinated by the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre (RRRC) in Cairns. This involved 402 surveys on reefs between Cairns and the northern Ribbon Reefs. It found 31% of their survey sites had not bleached, with the remaining 69% of the surveys showing varying levels of bleaching.

At 16 of the RRRC survey sites, 85% or more of the surveyed area was bleached to varying extents, ranging from moderate bleaching to coral death (bleaching levels 2-4, see page 8 of the report for more details).

At several of the Ribbon Reefs, between 30-40% of the corals at the surveyed site were dead. These results are not dissimilar to those of the ARC scientists.

The real picture

In summary, the level of bleaching of the coral reefs is catastrophic in the northern sector. Along the length of the Great Barrier Reef from north to south, there is a gradient of decreasing severity, from very severe to no sign of bleaching.

The magnitude of this bleaching, the worst ever to hit the reef, cannot be overstated. This is a massive blow to the UNESCO World Heritage site considered to be the most biodiverse on the planet.

Experts are predicting high levels of coral death across some parts of the Great Barrier Reef. Close to 50% mortality of bleached corals has already been measured north of Port Douglas. However, the wider impacts on the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem, and on the industries and communities that depend on a healthy reef, will not be fully apparent for months.

The Conversation

Jon C. Day, PhD candidate, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Climate justice and its role in the Paris Agreement

Anika Molesworth, Deakin University

Climate change is one of the principal threats to quality – and equality – of life on our planet. Beyond environmental problems, climate change threatens food security, water availability, health, housing and self-determination. In essence, it confronts our basic liberties and pursuit of happiness.

But the burden of climate change impacts is not distributed equally. The poor, women, children and indigenous people face disproportionate risks. For people with no safety net, one drought can mean a tumble into further hardship.

Those hit hardest by climate change are generally the least responsible for causing it, and have the least capacity to adapt. The idea that vulnerable people, particularly in developed nations, should be fairly considered was enshrined in the Paris Agreement, which opens for signing in New York this week.

The preamble notes the importance of “climate justice”. To give effect to this, the agreement emphasises the need to aid developing nations reduce emissions and adapt to climate change.

As an agricultural scientist working in developing countries – and a farmer myself – my work has explored climate justice in terms of the rural poor, a section of our global community hampered by mounting ecological calamity and limited ability to adapt.

Rural climate justice has four key elements.

Human rights

The distinctive characteristics of rural areas make them uniquely vulnerable to climate change impacts.

Rural areas in developing countries are characterised by a high dependence on agricultural and natural resources; burdened by poverty, isolation and marginality; neglected by policymakers; and ultimately have lower indicators of human development.

Climate change worsens existing deficiencies, exacerbates inequalities and creates new vulnerabilities. Weather impacts – from subtle shifts and trends to extreme events – increasingly threaten and erode basic needs, capabilities and rights of the rural poor.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that basic rights and fundamental freedoms are to be enjoyed by all people, no matter who they are or where they live. It recognises that everyone is entitled to the inherent dignity delivered by the foundations of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

Gender equality

Men and women are affected differently by climate change due to different social and cultural roles. In many rural communities, women form the majority of self-employed, small-scale farmers.

Given existing gender inequalities and development gaps, climate change ultimately places a greater burden on women. Climate change also increases vulnerability through emigration of men, increasing the workload on women; cropping and livestock changes that affect gender division of labour; greater difficulty in accessing water and fuel resources; and conflict over natural resources.

Intergenerational equity

The actions – and inactions – of the present population can jeopardise the rights and well-being of generations yet to come. By delaying climate change action, we risk passing on an irreparably diminished legacy.

The destruction of the environment is a fundamental breach of the principle of intergenerational equity, as it will cause significant flow-on effects to present and future communities.

Cultural integrity

Climate change causes social degradation via community instability and dislocation, which ultimately undermines cultures. Migration challenges the identity, sovereignty and heritage of people leaving their homelands, as well as the integrity and continuity of their traditional ways of life.

These dispersed and disassociated peoples can cause cascading effects and social disturbances to the communities they leave behind and the communities they enter. Migration is an extreme form of adaptation.

Although separating climate migrants from those moving for other reasons is near-impossible, as climate impacts aggravate existing problems for the rural poor, greater migration from these areas is inevitable.

Eliminating poverty while fixing climate change

To deliver climate justice, climate policies need to encompass human rights, gender equality, intergenerational equity and cultural integrity. These policies include mitigation strategies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and adaptation strategies to help cope with unavoidable consequences.

Development is not possible without energy, and sustainable development is not possible without access to clean, affordable and renewable energy. This is an opportunity for developing countries to avoid the dependence on fossil fuels seen in today’s developed world.

As climate change and a burgeoning global population increase pressure upon planetary boundaries, agricultural scientists are seeking ways to better manage natural resources and help farmers adapt to current and future climate.

Work with the rural poor that promotes social progress and better standards of life can ultimately provide flexibility and a buffer to adversities, and enable farmers to make well-informed decisions.

For communities most at risk, climate change is disrupting lives, work, food security and the places they call home. Only with the appropriate strategies and commitment to climate justice will the future for all people be brighter.

The Conversation

Anika Molesworth, PhD Candidate, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.