09/04/2017 6:46 AM AEST | Updated 09/04/2017 6:53 AM AEST

Plan To Save The Reef By Pumping Cold Water Sounds Nutty But Might Just Work

Well, they've got to try something in the short term.

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This idea is not as fishy as it sounds.

The Great Barrier Reef recently bleached again, as we all saw in March. It's the second major bleaching event in two years and at least the fourth major bleaching in the last two decades.

How to stop this increasingly frequent environmental catastrophe which could eventually wipe out the Reef?

The obvious long-term solution is to tackle global warming, as warmer-than-usual water is the primary cause of bleaching -- a process where coral turn white (and can eventually die) after they expel the algae living in them.

But a radical new short-term bleaching prevention measure is being considered by the Cairns-based Reef and Rainforest Research Centre (RRRC) -- a not-for-profit consortium of research providers, industry and community organisations which helps study and protect tropical ecosystems.

Their idea? It's a bit of a doozy but here goes. The RRRC, in conjunction with north Queensland tourism operators, want to pump cold water onto the reef to keep it cool. Not across the whole reef, just bits of it.

Greenpeace Australia Pacific

"So basically, the reef has a deeper side at the front [on the ocean side] that goes down to 20 or 30 or 40 metres," RRRC Managing Director Sheriden Morris told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Under normal circumstances, bleaching is caused by a couple of things. It's caused by warm water and by no currents and [the subsequent] light irradiation.

"What we've observed in other places like Guam and the Caribbean is that corals adjacent to upwellings or strong currents fare better [in bleaching events] and recover better than those caught in hot pools with no movement.

"We're trying to mimic that circumstance to change water temperatures by one or two degrees."

Ho New / Reuters
Environmental advocates and tourism operators are all fishing around for a solution.

This makes sense. Bring nearby deep cool water to the surface to help cool the reef. But how?

Morris didn't go into great detail on this, but she did say "Australia has some pretty clever engineering around water movement". She also said the process would be solar-powered and involve no big diesel pumps. So in terms of the carbon cycle, nobody would be robbing Peter to pay Paul, so to speak.

In terms of the location of the program, Morris said it would focus on selected locations and "obviously the tourist industries would have a big say". She also said it would only take place about 10 weeks a year between January and March, which is when the "bleaching season" occurs.

Consider those words for a moment. Bleaching has become such a commonplace part of life on the Reef that the warmest water months are now called "the bleaching season". That in itself tells you that radical ideas like this one are worth considering.

Sheriden is deputy Chair of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef and is MD of the RRRC. She lives on the family farm at Babinda, just south of Cairns.

Greenpeace Australia Pacific used the proposed cold water scheme to pour a little cold water of their own on the the Carmichael coal mine proposal.

"The failure of our governments to act on climate change is forcing tourism operators to explore costly, localised, short-term fixes that haven't been fully scientifically tested," Greenpeace Australia Pacific campaigner Alix Foster Vander Elst said.

"It's completely understandable that tourism operators are looking at all options to save their livelihoods but it's ridiculous that the Queensland and federal governments are working against them by supporting the Carmichael coal mine to export millions of tonnes of coal out through the Reef."

The $16 billion Carmichael coal mine would be Australia's largest, should it go ahead, and would be run and owned by the Indian Adani group.

Meanwhile Sheriden Morris said that the cold water pumps could be ready as soon as next summer, and that they were not a "silly concept". She also pointed out that "every possible effort has to be done to address carbon pollution".

"But with that comes the reality that the reef is facing increasing pressure. That's not giving up. That's saying 'let's be 'pragmatic and continue to find ways through'."