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New research has found that one of the world’s biggest gliding mammals, the greater glider in Australia, is actually three separate species. While this discovery marks an increase in Australia’s already-rich biodiversity, it creates new challenges for protecting these animals which are under pressure from rising temperatures, bushfires and land-clearing.

Researchers from The Australian National University, James Cook University, the University of Canberra and CSIRO worked together to run genetic tests from tissue samples taken from gliders in parts of Queensland, Victoria and from museum specimens. The results were published in the journal Scientific Reports

It was known that greater gliders were different sizes and colours in different places along the eastern coast of Australia but there were disagreements about their classification and there wasn’t sufficient proof that the animals might be several species, according to the researchers. 

Dr Kara Youngentob, a wildlife ecologist at ANU and co-author of the study, says, “We found that they were profoundly different.” 

These marsupials are about the size of a cat, are nocturnal, and eat only eucalyptus leaves. They launch themselves from trees and spread out a membrane attached to their elbows that allows them to glide as far as 100 metres. 

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The new research finds that greater gliders, with the Latin name Petauroides volans, are three distinct species that now include Petauroides minor and Petauroides armillatus. Splitting the one species into three now means assumptions that the greater glider lives from Victoria to Townsville in northeastern Queensland will have to be rethought.

Professor Andrew Krockenburger of James Cook University and one of the researchers, says, “Australia’s biodiversity just got a lot richer. It’s not every day that new mammals are confirmed, let alone two new mammals.”

The researchers believe that the discovery highlights a “lack of information” about the two new greater glider species, which could affect future conservation actions and management legislation. The study says, “A lack of knowledge about the genetic structure of species across their range can result in an inability to properly manage and protect species from extinction. This is especially true in the wake of a natural disaster, when wildlife management decisions need to be made quickly and under challenging circumstances.” 

However, greater gliders are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as well as human activities, like land clearing. They were listed as ‘vulnerable’ by the federal government even before last summer’s devastating bushfires; an early assessment of the impact of Australia’s Black Summer bushfires of 2019 and 2020 suggested that about 29% of greater glider habitat overlapped with the fires. Greater gliders need older trees with hollows in which they can hide during the day. 

The researchers say that greater glider numbers have fallen sharply in recent decades due to tree clearing, bushfires and global warming that is raising night-time temperatures to levels difficult for the marsupials to tolerate. Australia has the highest rate of species loss of any area in the world; it is therefore crucial to devise conservation strategies that take this into account. 

Featured image by: Flickr 

Researchers have found a new large, detached coral reef, measuring more than 500 metres in height, in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia. This is the eighth known detached coral reef in the area, and the first to be discovered in the past 120 years.

Scientists aboard the RV Folker made the discovery while mapping the seafloor off the coast of far north Queensland state, according to the Schmidt Ocean Institute, who facilitated the expedition. The more than 500m tall reef is about one-and-a-half times as tall as the Eiffel Tower and three-tenths as high as the Empire State Building. 

Why Does This Matter?

Robin Beaman, the expedition leader and a marine geologist at James Cook University, told Mongabay, “It’s exciting that we can still find such unusually tall … reefs in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. People have been mapping the Great Barrier Reef since 1770 when James Cook first sailed here. Since then, we have been progressively mapping the shallower coral reefs with technologies as advanced as airborne lidar bathymetry. But it still takes a modern multibeam-sonar equipped vessel, like the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s RV Falkor, to look in the right place and then do the 100% systematic mapping required in the deeper and more remote waters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, to reveal such surprising discoveries.”

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The newly-discovered reef is about 1.5 km wide at its base, rising up to 500 m, the shallowest depth being around 40 m below sea level. It is entirely separate from the Great Barrier Reef’s main shelf edge. 

To explore the reef, the team deployed a remotely operated vehicle, the ROV SuBastian, which started at the base of the reef and worked its way up, capturing the entire process and collecting biological samples. 

Excitingly, marine life was found all the way up the reef, but near the summit where waters are warmer and submit, there was a “thriving” shallow coral reef ecosystem, according to the researchers. 

In more good news, the newly-discovered reef seemed to be mostly intact, unaffected by recent bleaching events that have plagued large areas of the northern section of the park.

The discovery of this new coral reef adds to a year of underwater discoveries by the institute. In April, scientists discovered the longest recorded sea creature–a 45m siphonophore in Ningaloo Canyon, plus up to 30 new species. In August, scientists discovered five undescribed species of black coral and sponges and recorded Australia’s first observation of scorpionfish in the Coral Sea and Great Barrier Reef Marine Parks. Finally, in February, deep sea coral gardens and graveyards in Bremer Canyon Marine Park were discovered. 

Featured image by: Schmidt Ocean Institute

A royal commission into the 2019-2020 bushfires in Australia issued its final report on Friday, fingering human-caused climate change as the culprit and describing the country’s disaster outlook as “alarming.” The report also looked at natural disasters in general, showing a dire warning of a future which will be shaped by climate change and saying that “what was unprecedented is now our future.”

The report makes 80 recommendations, including enacting new legislation to allow the prime minister to declare a state of emergency. While none of the recommendations outline ways to lower greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change, the report acknowledges that human-caused global warming will play a central role in future disasters.

In a statement, Greg Mullins, former commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW and founder of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, says, “The Bushfire Royal Commission has laid out the facts in no uncertain terms: climate change drove the Black Summer bushfires in Australia, and climate change is pushing us into a future of unprecedented bushfire severity.”

It says, “consecutive and compounding natural disasters will place increasing stress on existing emergency management arrangements. As the events of the 2019-2020 bushfire season show, what was unprecedented is now our future.”

The commission noted that extreme weather has become more frequent and intense because of climate change and called for a more proactive approach to environmental disasters.

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The commission also urged the Australian government to stop funding new coal or gas projects, and transition rapidly to renewable energy. The government has been unwilling to adopt these measures. In September, the New South Wales Government was given approval to build a proposed 850 coal seam gas wells as part of a controversial AUD$3.6 billion development that environmentalists labelled “disastrous.” A week earlier, Prime Minister Scott Morrison also refused to commit to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

The federal government announced that they had accepted all of the commission’s recommendations, but did not comment on whether- or to what extent- it would implement them. There have been about 240 natural disaster inquiries in Australia over the years and “while many recommendations have been faithfully implemented and have led to significant improvements, others have not.”

“Our recommendations should be implemented, some as a matter of urgency,” the commission adds. “Several will take time to achieve the intended outcome, but meaningful steps should be taken now towards timely implementation. Each recommendation would improve our national natural disaster arrangements, but taken as a whole, they will have the greatest effect.”

During the “Black Summer” bushfires, over 24 million hectares were burnt. 33 people died and extensive smoke coverage across much of eastern Australia may have caused many more deaths. Over 3 000 homes were destroyed. Estimates of the national financial impacts are over AUD$10 billion. Nearly three billion animals were killed or displaced and many threatened species and other ecological communities were extensively harmed. 

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons

A new study has found that warmer ocean temperatures driven by the climate crisis have caused Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to lose more than half of its corals since 1995, which researchers say will continue unless drastic action is taken to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. 

A variety of corals in the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest reef system, suffered a decline over the past quarter-century, with the most drastic falls occurring after mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017. In August 2019, the outlook of the reef was downgraded to “very poor’ and this year, the reef suffered its third mass bleaching event in five years

The researchers of the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B and conducted at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Queensland, assessed the health and size of coral colonies across the reef from 1995 to 2017. It found that populations had dropped by more than 50% in all coral sizes and species, but especially in branching and table-shaped corals, the large, structural species which provide habitats for fish and other marine life. 

Terence Hughes, one of the researchers, says, “We used to think the Great Barrier Reef is protected by its sheer size- but our results show that even the world’s largest and relatively well-protected reef system is increasingly compromised and in decline.” 

Corals are able to recover if conditions return to normal, but it can take decades. We are living in a world where anthropogenic changes will warm the planet for decades to come before any climate action begins to take effect, so conditions in the reef are unlikely to return to normal in time for a full recovery.

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According to the BBC, a 2019 study found that damaged corals struggled to recover because most of the adult corals had died. According to lead author Dr Andy Dietzel, a healthy coral population should have millions of baby coral as well as many large ones. The ability of the reef to recover has been compromised because there are fewer babies, and fewer large breeding adults.

The reef was designated a World Heritage Site in 1981 for its “enormous scientific and intrinsic importance,” but the past decade has seen the reef damaged by warmer seas which have killed off coral and other sea life and sped up the growth of algae and other contaminants. 

On Twitter, Hughes took aim at government leaders and particularly the “Murdoch press”- referring to Rupert Murdoch, whose titles account for nearly two-thirds of metropolitan circulation in Australia and who famously ignore or vilify climate change research- for ignoring the study. The Australian government has repeatedly resisted calls to reduce carbon emissions even as heat waves, droughts and fires continue to ravage the country. 

The UN has warned that if global temperature rise reaches 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, 90% of the world’s corals will be wiped out. 

All hope is not lost however. At the local level, nitrogen pollution, which exacerbates bleaching, can be controlled by controlling and mitigating fertiliser and sewage runoff, according to a study. As corals account for billions of dollars in global tourism for many countries around the world, especially Australia, it is certainly in their best interests to mitigate their carbon emissions.

For the first time in 3 000 years, Tasmanian devils have returned to the wild in mainland Australia. Aussie Ark, in partnership with Global Wildlife Conservation and WildArk, recently released 11 Tasmanian devils into a 400-hectare wildlife sanctuary on Barrington Tops in a bid to rewild Australia, which has the world’s worst mammal extinction rate. 

Tasmanian devils vanished entirely from mainland Australia partly because they were outcompeted by dingoes. Additionally, a transmissible, painful and fatal disease called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD)—the only known contagious cancer—decimated up to 90% of the wild population of Tasmanian devils. Just 25,000 devils are left in the wild of Tasmania today.

The reintroduction took place on September 10 following a successful assisted trial release with 15 Tasmanian devils. 26 devils now call the wild of mainland Australia home. Aussie Ark selected the particular devils for reintroduction based on those most suitable to breed with one another without any inbreeding. The wild sanctuary will prevent the spread of disease, feral pests, noxious weeds and fire The wild sanctuary will also keep cars out, ensuring that the devils learn not to associate cars with food—an association that could be deadly when they are more widely released.

Tim Faulkner, president of Aussie Ark, says, “In 100 years, we are going to be looking back at this day as the day that set in motion the ecological restoration of an entire country. Not only is this the reintroduction of one of Australia’s beloved animals, but of an animal that will engineer the entire environment around it, restoring and rebalancing our forest ecology after centuries of devastation from introduced foxes and cats and other invasive predators. Because of this reintroduction and all of the hard work leading up to it, someday we will see Tasmanian devils living throughout the great eastern forests as they did 3,000 years ago.”

As apex predators and the world’s largest carnivorous marsupials, Tasmanian devils help control feral cats and foxes that threaten other endangered and endemic species. Additionally, because they are scavengers, they keep their habitats clean and free of disease.

The Tasmanian devil is one of seven species critical to Australia’s ecosystem that Aussie Ark plans to reintroduce to the wild sanctuary in the coming years: Eastern quoll, Brush-tail rock wallabies, Rufous bettong, long-nosed potoroo, parma wallabies and southern brown bandicoots.

This is the first of three planned reintroductions. In the next two years, Aussie Ark will do two additional releases of 20 devils each. The animals will be monitored through regular surveys, radio collars fit with transmitters and camera traps. This will give the researchers the opportunity to learn about how the devils are faring, where they are claiming territory, what challenges they are facing, what they are eating, and whether they’re reproducing. All of this information will help to inform future releases, including in Tasmania and elsewhere on the mainland.

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About Aussie Ark

Aussie Ark was established in 2011 as ‘Devil Ark’, with a focus on saving the Tasmanian devil from extinction. Since then, the role of the organisation has expanded, and now has a vision of creating a long-term future for threatened Australian species. Aussie Ark will secure wild sanctuaries to conserve native wildlife, free from unnatural predation. Learn more at www.aussieark.org.au

About Global Wildlife Conservation

GWC conserves the diversity of life on Earth by safeguarding wildlands, protecting wildlife and supporting guardians, maximising its impact through scientific research, biodiversity exploration, habitat conservation, protected area management, wildlife crime prevention, endangered species recovery and conservation leadership cultivation.  Learn more at https://globalwildlife.org

About WildArk

WildArk is a global not-for-profit conservation effort that was founded in 2016, aiming to promote and support activities that educate, enable, provide resources or inspire humanity to sustainably conserve, protect or restore the environment and the world’s ecosystems, natural resources, wildlife and wild places. The mission is manifested through positive storytelling, scientific research, supporting wildlife conservation and investing in space for the wild. Learn more at www.wildark.org.

Calls from Australia for an investigation into China ’s role as the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a coal trade war between the two countries, which will have harmful impacts on both countries. While Beijing has responded by blocking the import of Australian barley and beef from major processing plants, Australia continues to put pressure on China’s methods of handling the virus despite risk of further trade retaliation. 

China is Australia’s largest trading partner, with China receiving about AUS$123.3 billion (USD$85bn) worth of goods in 2019, equivalent to over 30% of Australia’s total exports. A trade war between these countries could have disastrous consequences for Australia, whose economy was losing about US$2.6bn per week at the height of COVID-related shutdowns. Following Australia’s demands for an investigation into the pandemic, China has blocked Australian imports of barley and beef, worth a total of AUS$9.9 billion in 2017 to 2018. 

Chinese investment in Australia had already fallen by 58% from AUS$8.2 billion to AUS$3.5 billion in 2019, as Australia changed its screening rules for foreign projects to stop Chinese buyers from purchasing strategic assets at low prices. Other countries, such as the US, Canada and members of the EU have also implemented tighter foreign investment screening measures. 

With support from powerful western Allies, including the US, Australia is confident that it can continue to put pressure on China to carry out investigations. However, this puts them at risk of further trade retaliation. 

Tensions have risen as reports suggest that China is now targeting Australian coal by clamping down on import quotas. Australia’s top export commodities to China include iron ores and concentrates, which take up an approximate 15.2% share and coal, with 15%. There was a -2.0% change in the share of iron ores but a 11.3% change in the share of coal from 2017 to 2018, showing the increasing importance of coal exports in Australian trade. In response to this news, Australian coal mining firms are looking to diversify and build their market into southeast Asia in case such quotas come into effect.

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In 2019, China’s global purchases of coal totalled US$18.9 billion, with almost 50% of this coming from Australia. Therefore, by applying strict trade barriers on coal coming from Australia, the amount of coal being imported would be cut down considerably. Since China actually imports more coal than it needs and has been pushing for better use of its own resources, this would affect Australia more than China.

The importance of coal exports to Australia allows China to use it as a trading threat, since China has alternative sources of supply from other exporting countries, such as Mongolia, Indonesia and Russia. Due to high amounts of imports during the first five months of the year, China has started to step up its custom checks for coal imports which has led to lengthy processing delays at ports. It appears as though China is looking to boost its domestic coal industry. 

However, doing so will go against China’s 13th Five-Year Plan, which places a heavy emphasis on long term sustainability. There are three key areas to the plan, including the promotion of new businesses and business models that support sustainability. This means that businesses must provide services that are resource-efficient enough for at least 10 billion people to use without negatively impacting the planet. 

While coal is widely used to generate electricity due to it being very energy dense, it releases more acidic and greenhouse gas pollutants than both oil and gas, making it an unsustainable and unclean form of energy. 

Furthermore, the coal industry in China is struggling financially, with profits falling since 2016 and turning into losses from 2017. There is significant overcapacity in the sector as China overinvested in the coal power sector; major companies are operating on losses as high as 50% and have debt ratios exceeding 200%, with some plants having to declare bankruptcy and shut down. A study from the University of Maryland projected that the average utilisation rate of the country’s coal plants could drop to 45% by 2025. 

In the last three years, China cancelled 103 projects that were planned or under construction, which eliminated 120 gigawatts of potential coal-fired capacity. However, coal still accounts for 57.7% of its total energy use as of 2019. 

Despite China cancelling a significant amount of coal-fired projects, the country is continuing to grant permits for coal-fired power plants at the highest rate since 2016, and has built nearly two-thirds of the world’s operating plants and is home to nearly 90% of generators under construction, according to a recent report by the Global Energy Monitor, a research and advocacy group. 

The International Energy Agency predicts that the world demand for coal is set for its biggest annual drop since World War II because of COVID-19. 

Nevertheless, efforts continue to be made to stimulate China’s domestic coal industry, according to a report published by the National Energy Administration in February. The report indicates a loosening in restrictions for new coal-plant approvals. Additionally, the development of major infrastructure programs and other stimulus to counteract the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic have been announced, with no mention of prioritising and promoting clean and renewable energy, indicating their continuing dependence on coal as a source of energy. 

Thankfully, China has made remarkable strides in the renewable energy sector and, according to a report published by the Global Commission on the Geopolitics of Energy Transformation, has become the world’s largest producer, exporter and installer of sustainable energy sources such as solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles.

It is difficult to say why China continues to prop up its coal industry despite it not having significant financial returns, but what is clear is that China has more than enough of its own coal, and so any attempt by Australia to weaken China’s reputation in the international community will unfortunately affect it more than China, unless Australia can find suitable trading partners. 

However, it is concerning that China continues to develop coal power plants at a time when the planet is trying to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius. It should continue to invest in renewable energy projects and divest from fossil fuels, especially since renewable energy has shown to be more profitable than fossil fuels. 

Featured image by: Rose Davies

A new green stimulus plan aimed at rebuilding Australia ’s economy from recession while tackling the climate crisis could generate nearly 80 000 jobs, according to new analysis.

A report by the consultants AlphaBeta says that 76 000 positions could be created over three years with the help of $22 billion of combined public and private investment. The plan focuses on 12 areas, including designing extensive renewable energy projects, restoring deteriorated ecosystems, creating solutions for dealing with organic waste, modernising ineffective public buildings and infrastructure and expanding electric vehicle networks. The analysis identified that 70% of the jobs would be in construction and administration, 42% would be based in regional areas and close to a third would require minimal training. 

Moreover, jobs would be tailored to regional needs; for instance, in New South Wales, opportunities would involve building public transport infrastructure and large-scale renewable energy plants, and in Victoria, jobs relating to utility scale clean energy and organic waste management. In all other states and territories, ecosystem restoration was identified as a leading job creator. 

Australia is currently 43% more emissions-intensive than the OECD average. The country emits more greenhouse gases per unit of GDP than each of the EU, Japan, the US and Canada. This plan is one such way to help Australia in achieving its green goals, an important feat considering that the government has historically not acknowledged the dangers of the climate crisis.

Australian Green Policies

Stimulus projects should prioritise economic recovery while promoting the shift to cleaner energy. They aim to reduce costs in the long-term and better position the economy to adapt to a greener and more sustainable environment. 

The analysis suggested investment in pilot-scale green hydrogen developments would be economically beneficial, yielding $4 of private spending for every public dollar invested. Large solar and windfarms would unlock $3 for every dollar spent, while electric vehicle infrastructure, waste collection solutions and community-scale energy and storage projects could generate $2, showing the economic benefits of investing in green infrastructure. 

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Pushing for a Green Recovery from Recession 

Numerous groups and organisations have advocated for a green recovery from the recession by  improving the energy efficiency of Australia’s ‘substandard’ house and building stock. An energy and climate change thinktank, Beyond Zero Emissions, found that practical projects that decarbonise the economy could create an average of 335 000 jobs annually, for five years. 

The Morrison government has yet to prioritise low-emissions investments in its response. The energy and emissions reduction minister has called for a gas-fired recovery and the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission has firmly supported expanding the gas industry without considering renewable energy. However, the proposition of a green recovery has won more support from state governments. 

Amanda McKenzie, the Climate Council’s chief executive, said the green plan proposed by AlphaBeta would put Australia ‘on a practical, jobs-rich path and focuses on areas most in need’. “It sets us up for the future by creating jobs and tackling climate change…it’s a win-win solution,” she said.

Koalas may become extinct by 2050 without urgent government intervention, according to a report published by the Parliament of New South Wales (NSW). The report, a year-long inquiry into one of the country’s most beloved native species, presents a ‘dark and depressing snapshot’ of the situation for koalas in Australia’s southeastern state. 

How Many Koalas are Left?

The report says that even prior to the most recent  bushfires in 2019/2020, koalas in NSW were already endangered species. Population numbers were estimated to be 36 000, but these were considered to be ‘outdated and unreliable’. 

Of the 1 billion animals killed by the catastrophic bushfires, an estimated 6 382 koalas perished, 15% of the marsupial’s population in NSW alone. More than 12 million acres of land burned across NSW, and close to 45 million acres across Australia. Conservation and environmental groups say that the fires resulted in the loss of more than 80% of koala habitats, pushing the animals into ‘functional extinction’. 

Josey Sharrad, an International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) wildlife campaigner, says that koalas are particularly vulnerable to bushfires as they are slow moving, reproduce slowly and often only give birth to one joey at a time and live in eucalyptus trees that burn quickly and intensely. She added that when fires sweep through their homes, they often don’t have time to escape, particularly in intense crown fires that rage through the treetops where they live. 

The combination of deforestation, the climate crisis and ongoing droughts in the region continue to threaten koalas’ unique habitat, the eucalyptus forests in the southeastern and eastern parts of the continent on which they rely for both habitat and food

The exact numbers of koala populations across Australia are unknown, but the IFAW report puts the number of koalas in NSW at about 42 500.

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A ‘Koala Crisis’ 

Philip Spark, a wildlife ecologist, worries about a koala crisis that is being overlooked due to a lack of awareness and warning: “with the trees dying and the streams drying there is a recipe for disaster. Koalas are really on the brink of not surviving.” It is therefore of great importance that urgent action is taken in order to protect the koalas in Australia, and to conserve the environment in which they inhabit, before irreversible damage prevails. 

Conservation Recommendations 

Cate Faehrmann, Greens MLC and committee chair of the NSW parliament, says, “the strategies and policies currently in place to protect the koala aren’t working, like the NSW Koala Strategy, which fails in ensuring enough koala habitat is protected for the different koala populations across the state.”

Members of the NSW legislative council made 42 recommendations to prevent koalas from becoming extinct, including conserving koala habitats, establishing more detailed approaches to monitoring koala numbers, and calling on the government to allot additional resources and funds with the aim of restoring koala habitats across Australia. 

A report published by the IPCC says that by 2050, once-in-a-century events are expected to occur every year with 50 degree Celsius heatwaves in the next 20 years. The researchers stress that the climate crisis will not affect the quality and abundance of their food and habitat, but will also compound the severity of other impacts, such as droughts and bushfires. If we do not correct our invasive relationship with nature, koalas are just one of the animals that will be extinct by 2050. 

Scientists have discovered dozens of new coral species on a recent expedition along the Great Barrier Reef, a find that will provide insights to aid conservation and management. However, researchers have warned of complacency and say that a lot more needs to be done for the marvel that has experienced three mass bleaching events in five years. 

The 21-day expedition in early January saw a team of researchers from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), James Cook University (JCU) and University of Technology Sydney (UTS) observe the Great Barrier Reef by collecting coral samples and recording the aquatic life they found. The expedition ranged from the Capricorn Bunkers off Gladstone to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait.

What is coral reef bleaching?

The Great Barrier Reef experienced mass bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and early this year. Bleaching is how coral reacts to ocean temperature changes. Symbiotic algae live in the corals’ tissues and turn the entire reef section white when exposed to these warmer temperatures for an extended period of time, eventually killing the coral.

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New Coral Species

Associate Professor of Marine Science from KAUST, Dr. Francesca Benzoni, stated in a local interview, “On almost every dive we were finding new species of corals that have never been accurately described and classified.” 

Their findings led the researchers to conclude that the biodiversity of some coral groups could be at least three times greater than initially believed.

Additionally, the findings of the expedition revealed that one hard coral species, Acropora hyacinthus, previously thought to be a single species, is potentially five different species that all live relatively close together. The team also surveyed black corals on the reef for the first time.

The research also showed the discovery of a number of species of coral not previously seen on the reef.

These findings will aid in management and conservation of the Great Barrier Reef, by indicating the quantity of coral species, how common they are and the locations of specific coral species, which will impact scientists and biologists who use the Great Barrier Reef for different kinds of research. As the weeks and months progress, management professionals in conservation will need to readjust how they record findings from the reef and consider if any other corals could present new species as well.

This expedition’s findings will alter scientific studies and change how environmental companies protect and preserve the environment regarding climate change monitoring. 

Further dives will focus on how common these new coral species are on the reef and if they’re widespread. Scientists will begin to look at previously known corals differently and plan future projects that will catalog every new finding. 

Based on how they store information and comb through coral species, diving teams could change how experts manage the Great Barrier Reef and view other corals from around the world. The taxonomy field will become a new focus and shed light on hard and soft corals, both cataloged and newly discovered.

They say, “Understanding the diversity of species on the reef underpins virtually every area of research and conservation.”

While news of this new coral species is positive, the researchers have called for more research and funding to be able to ‘reassess the taxonomy of common groups found on the reef, including hard, soft and black corals’. Additionally, they call for countries to reduce carbon emissions to avoid catastrophic ocean warming that would decimate coral reefs globally. The IPCC has warned that even if warming is limited to the 1.5 degrees Celsius target outlined in the Paris Agreement, ‘almost all warm-water coral reefs are projected to suffer significant losses of area and local extinctions’. 

However, the UN Environment Programme said in late 2019 that even if countries meet their Paris commitments, the world is heading for a 3.2 degree Celsius global temperature rise over pre-industrial levels. This makes it all the more important that countries reduce their carbon emissions and create policies and incentives for companies to do the same to avoid even more destructive climate impacts.

Featured image by: G. Lamar

Coral is essential for life on earth. At the same time, it is one of the planet’s most threatened ecosystems, directly impacted by global ocean warming from anthropogenic climate change. The Great Barrier Reef, one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites known for its ‘enormous scientific and intrinsic importance’, has just undergone its third mass bleaching event in five years, affecting 25% of the entire reef. How do we save this marvel before it’s too late?

UNESCO has warned that coral reefs across all World Heritage Sites will cease to exist by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions are kept at business-as-usual levels. The IPCC says that limiting global warming to 1.5C rather than 2C or above will mean the difference between survival and loss of the majority of coral ecosystems. Such a scenario will have disastrous effects on the interconnected marine ecosystem: whilst coral only covers 0.1% of the ocean floor globally, 25% of marine life depends on coral for their life cycles. The earth’s oceans are also the world’s largest carbon sinks, storing carbon dioxide in algae, vegetation and coral. 

What is coral bleaching?

Coral bleaching is a reaction to heat stress. When corals are immersed in warmer-than-average water for extended periods of time, the algae- zooxanthellae– which lives inside coral tissue, gets expelled. This provides food and colour and helps corals to reproduce, and thus this expulsion results in coral becoming ‘bleached’ and losing its colour. Severe bleaching can kill corals, but they also have the potential to recover if temperatures stabilise- yet the climate crisis is increasing both the frequency and severity of bleaching events. 

Coral Bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef

Current surveys of the most recent bleaching incident in the Great Barrier Reef estimate that the impacts are more severe and widespread than all previously recorded outbreaks. According to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the severity of the damage varied, but some areas that had been spared during mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 (where 20% of shallow water reefs were bleached) had now experienced moderate or severe bleaching. Experts have suggested that the trends of bleaching suggest that it will become a near-annual event. 

In 2019, Australia downgraded its outlook on the reef from ‘poor’ to ‘very poor’ due to climate change risks. Tropical coral reefs tend to be at a higher risk of bleaching during times when the Pacific Ocean experiences the ‘El Niño’ effect: a climate pattern that occurs when sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean rise to above-normal levels for an extended period of time. Such a process is likely to be intensified by rising global temperatures; one study suggests that strong El Niño events could double in frequency in the future due to the climate crisis: the potential for unprecedented interactions between El Niño and anthropogenic  global warming is significant, with coral bleaching just one of the ecosystems set to suffer. 

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how can we save the great barrier reef
Figure 1: Showing the spread of bleaching in the 2016 and 17 cases. Source

According to Dr Mark Eakin, coordinator of Coral Reef Watch at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there is a risk that this mass bleaching could mark the start of a global-scale bleaching event. The main driving force of this cannot be ascribed to El Niño as it is currently in a neutral year, indicating more towards anthropogenic climate change effects: February was recorded as the hottest month for the Great Barrier Reef on record. 

However, some areas of the 2 300km marine park are hardly affected: the authority noted that reefs in the northern and central parts, including near Cairns and Port Douglas, experienced moderate bleaching, and most corals there should recover. Many deeper ocean reefs are avoiding the bleaching entirely.

Aside from its ecological importance, the Great Barrier Reef also provides significant economic value. Its overall economic value has been estimated at $56 billion (AUD), with an annual national contribution of $6.4 billion and generating 64 000 jobs. Protection of the reef must be incorporated in economic models in order to shift thinking into a model whereby coral is treated as an asset that must be conserved. 

How to Protect the Great Barrier Reef from Climate Change

Changes to the reef must be monitored closely, with an overall objective of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. As the IUCN put it: “Limiting global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C, in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change, provides the only chance for the survival of coral reefs globally.” 

But scientists in Australia have two key questions regarding the Reef’s future: will governments around the world stick to, and improve on, cuts to greenhouse gases, and if so, how closely will this keep warming to 1.5C? The second question lies in the success of potential adaptation measures. The most recent bleaching episode is fairly patchy, indicating that areas of the reef that have avoided bleaching can still be managed: a combination of prevention and adaptation are crucial for the Great Barrier Reef’s future. 

According to Professor Peter Mumby, Professor of Coral Reef Ecology at the University of Queensland and Chief Scientist at the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a potential avenue for study lies in the scale and diversity of the reef. The reef is made up of 4 000 diverse reefs, 100 of which have been identified as well spread, well connected and currently experiencing cooler ocean temperatures, suggesting there is hope for survival. Focusing attention on the health and sustainability of these reefs, therefore, is crucial. 

One particular area of study is ‘assisted gene flow’, proposed by The Australian Institute of Marine Sciences– a process much like IVF for corals. Corals with better heat tolerance, found to be an hereditary trait in corals, can be selected and captured to grow in a lab setting and subsequently dispersed into the ocean for greater resilience. An experiment with 90 parent specimens from three parts of the reef grew 7 500 offspring and subjected them to temperatures of up to 2C warming and related levels of CO2. Many of these corals survived, suggesting that all hope for coral is not lost. Dr Zoe Richards explains the process further: 

“The whole goal of a lot of these interventions is to work with species that can be successful on their own. We won’t be able to work with 600 species of corals, but we could probably work with 20 that fill the functional roles of a healthy reef community.

Further, the Australian government has recently backed over 40 concepts in a $150 million research and development programme. The concepts include creating fog and mist over smaller reef areas, using micro-bubbles, ultra-thin natural films and farmed algae to reduce light over smaller areas, stabilising and enhancing damaged reefs with mesh, frames, concrete shapes and 3D printed forms to recreate the complexity of natural reefs and breeding corals that are naturally more heat tolerant and then using their larvae in mass dispersal.

David Mead, who helped coordinate the feasibility study, says, “If we can get the science right and intervene on the reef at scale to build that resilience, then the benefits for Australia environmentally, socially and economically, especially for reef communities, is going to be in the tens of billions of dollars.”

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