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Coral Death: The Time For Statistics Has Passed, Now Let's Swear

"What the f---, Australia?"

25/07/2016 12:56 PM AEST | Updated July 25, 2016 15:02

Most Devastating Coral Bleaching Event Underway On The Great Barrier Reef

The alarming figures of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef aren't shocking Australians into useful action.

We know 93 percent of the region's reefs have been bleached, that about 50 percent of Lizard Island's fish are already dead and the world's preeminent experts predict there are people alive today who will search the world and never find a piece of living coral.

Coral Watch chief investigator Justin Marshall says the statistics don't work. Perhaps swearing will.

Forget the numbers, the problem is big, let's f------ do something about it.

"I've spent the last 20 years monitoring a declining ecosystem and I'm sick of it," the University of Queensland professor told The Huffington Post Australia.

"What the f--- Australia, if China and India can invest billions in renewable energy, why can't we?

"We are preparing an environmental apocalypse for our children and it's not until it's almost too late that people start to care."

"Forget the numbers, the problem is big, let's f------ do something about it."

Getty Images/iStockphoto
Coral is bleaching currently in the Maldives and Indonesia.

Marshall returned this month from a research trip to Lizard Island -- a small national park island in a once-pristine part of the Great Barrier Reef. In consecutive visits since March last year, Marshall's seen the ecosystem collapse as an estimated 90 percent of branching corals died.

"The new balance of that ecosystem hasn't settled yet and my estimate was that I was seeing well below 50 percent of the total fish population. We've lost billions of fish.

Justin Marshall
Blue green damselfish used to hang in clouds above the reef in Lizard Island but Marshall only saw one group on his last visit.

"I don't think any were thriving, I was expecting see more parrot fish because they'd be happy with the algae [that grows on dead coral] but I was surprised how few there were even of the fish you'd expect to see around a degraded reef.

"Normally you see a big cloud of blue green damselfish about every 10 metres but this time I only saw one."

What is coral bleaching?

Coral hosts tiny algae in its tissues called zooxanthellae that produce its food as well as its colour.

When waters become too hot or cold, the coral becomes stressed and its metabolism and reproductive system break down.

At this point, it cannot process the oxygen created by the zooxanthellae, so it expels them.

Justin Marshall
Coral before (above) and after (below) bleaching.

Justin Marshall

If the temperature returns to normal, these tiny creatures can re-enter the tissues, or if most but not all algae have been expelled, the remaining few can keep the coral alive.

If the temperatures remain extreme and the sun continues shining, the coral dies.

There is no specific temperature threshold that tips coral into bleaching territory, rather, it's a cumulative stress.

Throwing money at reef programs may prolong the inevitable but any solutions, Marshall said, would not come from government (and yes, there were a few expletives used to illustrate that) but rather from the young.

"If everyone under 30 decided to forget government and their policies and just go off the grid, it just might save the reef," Marshall said.

Lester Lefkowitz
The young have the opportunity to save the reef through using renewable energy.

"About a decade later, that use of renewables could almost do it, turn it around and save the reef."

That's why Marshall and his team run citizen science project Coral Watch, where people can head out into their own region and determine whether coral has been bleached and if so, how badly.

How will renewable energy save the world's reefs?

It's two fold -- through reducing global warming levers and limiting the effect of ocean acidity.

When fossil fuels are burnt like oil or coal, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere where it traps heat, making the world hotter.

About 30 percent of the CO2 is absorbed in the ocean, and it's been proven beyond a doubt that it converts the gas into carbonic acid making the water slightly more acidic.

This effect is already being seen in some U.S. crab fisheries where animals shells are getting thinner.

He said that by getting people to engage with the ideas of coral bleaching, they might care.

"So often it feels like preaching to the converted,"

"Australia is a fabulously rich country. If China and India can do it then what the f--- Australia, for goodness sake, don't have another TV, don't have another car, switch to renewables and make the sacrifices.

"We need to run at renewables full pelt and the under 30s need to lead it."

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