The Great Barrier Reef is not only the largest reef system, as it is composed of 2,900 individual reefs, but it is
classified as the largest organism on Earth since it is comprised of millions of living coral polyps. Located off the coast of Northern Queensland, the infamous reef contains 900 separate islands and spans 2,600 kilometers, making it nearly half the size of Texas! Famous for its mesmerizing, brightly colored coral and clear ocean water, the reef is an ideal habitat for a diverse range of organisms. Darting back and forth snorkelers can see fish, turtles, and marine mammals playfully swimming through the pristine water, transporting the divers back to a time before human influence. The awe-inspiring biodiversity present on the reef makes it home to nearly 10 percent of the ocean’s fish, 30 marine mammal species, over 200 seabirds, and hundreds of other species. The sustainability of the Great Barrier Reef is crucial to the Australian economy as tourism linked to the reef is responsible for $5 billion dollars of revenue yearly. Besides being recognized as one of the seven great wonders of the natural world, the United Nations declared it a Global Heritage Site. However, the reef is in significant decline as the U.N. has listed it as “in danger” from various human impacts; however, the Australian government is not doing enough to conserve this iconic landmark.
For the past year, the Australian government has been debating granting approval for a new coal mine in central queensland, which would have direct negative effects on the already decreasing reef. Before diving into the legal battle and possible repercussions of this decision, we must first examine the current health of the Great Barrier Reef. Studies reveal that since 1985 corals in the Great Barrier Reef have decreased by 50 percent. A variety of causes are to blame for this rapid decline, such as: dredging, ocean acidification, global warming, increased storm damage, and other natural causes. A study published in 2014 calculated that 42 percent of reef damage was caused by storm damage, while only 10 percent was due to coral bleaching, and the remaining percent was due to natural causes. though storm damage may seem like a natural occurrence, climate change has altered the severity and frequency of storms. Due to increased Carbon Emissions, the atmosphere and how it operates has been transformed into a system that produces more intense storms that occur more often; therefore, climate change is the indirect culprit for a large percentage of reef damage.
Another major factor of decrease in overall reef health is dredging, or the digging up of sand and clay from the ocean floor to make way for large commercial fishing and coal shipping lanes. When these sediments are unearthed and enter the water column, they can drift 100 kilometers before settling. In their path they smother delicate seagrass and coral communities, which provide crucial breeding and nursing habitats for sensitive species such as, dugongs. Additionally, dredging causes twice the likelihood for coral diseases to develop, which can be devastating to the reef. Australia banned the dumping of dredging from one site to another in 2015; however, the effects of dredging combined with ocean acidification is still a fatal combination for many corals. Ocean Acidification is the process by which the oceans absorb Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere. Due to excess amounts of greenhouse gases the oceans are warming and becoming more acidic. Since the industrial revolution, the oceans have become 25 percent more acidic, which causes a serious stress to corals. When corals become stressed by either temperature or pH, they expel their zooxanthellae algae which gives them their bright colors and produce 90 percent of their energy through photosynthesis. This phenomenon is called coral bleaching because it leaves the corals a stark, white color indicating that the coral polyps will most likely die if new algae doesn’t settle to replace it.
Clearly, scientific research has demonstrated a need to preserve what is left of the incredible Great Barrier Reef, however the Australian government has just authorized the opposite. The Carmichael coal mine, a project backed by India’s Adani Enterprises, has just been approved; and Shani Tanger of Greenpeace Australia claims it will be a, “complete disaster for the climate.” The license to mine coal on the shores directly connected to the Great Barrier Reef is not only a threat to the reef, but the ecosystem at large. In order to build the mining operation, significant dredging within the Great Barrier Reef will take place to allow more ships to pass through. Runoff from the mine into the Great Barrier Reef will be inevitable, and tracing the coal to its final destination it will only add to the carbon emissions that cause ocean acidification. Ironically, India (the third largest producer of carbon emissions) will be the primary purchaser of coal. Currently, they are having a major problem with “choking pollution” from burning coal in India, just another reason to not allow more mining. Lawyers on the case argued that even though the government mandated, “36 of the strictest conditions in Australian history,” they vastly, “understated its impact on the endangered finch and other flora and fauna.” One of the biggest mysteries in this case is why the Australian government is taking this risk when the economics don’t seem to support the decision.
Analyzing the economic gain the Australian government would receive from the project seems to amount to very little. Firstly the price of coal has dropped 52 percent since 2011, as the global community moves toward cleaner energy sources. Daniel Morgan, a global commodities analysts, weighed in his opinion saying,”You’d need a price of about $100-$110 per metric ton for it to stack up,” which does not reflect the current value of coal. The primary reason that the government promoted this project is Adani Group’s promise of 10,000 Queensland jobs being created as a result of the mine. Experts have been skeptical of this number and estimate that a net 1,464 jobs is the maximum number of new jobs that can be created. Therefore, scientists and economists alike agree that the Carmichael mine causes many more environmental costs than economic benefits. Hopefully the mine will be strictly regulated as the Australian government claims, for the ocean ecosystem at large and the Great Barrier Reef can not continue to sustain themselves while combatting human impact from all sides.