“Australia’s biggest ever environmental disaster”

The Great Barrier Reef is dying. We’re killing it.

The corals are bleaching. When stressed, They lose their symbiotic algae, and then they starve and die. What’s stressing them? Rising ocean temperatures. What’s making the ocean temperatures rise? Fossil fuel consumption.

So this was a bit ironic.

As news of the bleaching spread around the globe, the Australian government granted more approvals for what could be Australia’s largest ever coalmine in Queensland’s Galilee basin.

This isn’t just Australia’s fault or Australia’s disaster, though. We could point to the exploitation of oil shales by Canada, or the US’s eagerness to suck in more oil pipelines and blow out more CO2, or China’s enthusiastic conversion of coal into smog. It’s a world-wide catastrophe.

We seem bound and determined to destroy ourselves, do we really need to take out every ecosystem on the planet on our way out?


  1. kestrel says

    I’ve had people tell me it’s OK to dump raw sewage and whatever in the ocean, because it’s so big that it just won’t matter.

    I then challenge them: get a 55-gallon aquarium and set it up for saltwater and then try and keep several organisms alive for six months. Just six months.

    Most people have no idea how incredibly delicate salt water organisms are. But it looks like we’re all going to find out. Sadly.

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re 2:
    yeah, the urban legend of “the solution to pollution is dilution”, IE the ocean is so big anything we dump will be diluted to insignificance. Yeah, not that easy….

  3. says

    There’s money to be made and convenience to be had. Here in Alberta, the rallying cry of the do-nothings is “JOBS! JOBS! JOBS!” If you could make a decent living juice-pressing live kittens, the line would stretch around the block.

  4. says

    Life will find a way.

    Not our life. We’re fucked. Probably not going to make it through the next few thousand years. But after the mass extinction something else will come along that might be smarter than humans. I’m hoping for advanced octopodes.

  5. Jake Harban says

    Might be, but hardly guaranteed. Our particular variety of intelligence seems to be disfavored by evolution.

  6. says

    Maybe the advanced octopuses will have the same amount of respect for their mother ocean as we advanced apes have for our mother savannah, and turn the reef into a parking lot.

  7. madtom1999 says

    I’m convinced we’re gonna do more than 2C by the end of the century.
    Is the coral completely screwed or will it move south? There must have been some coral in what are now cooler waters during the Eemian.
    To be cynical I dont think we are going to fuck the corals up anywhere near as much as we are going to fuck ourselves over.
    Well unless we go for a full blown MAD nuclear goodbye.

  8. says

    Here’s another way in which some of our human policies are endangering resources. (This is a cross post from the Moments of Political Madness thread.)

    More proposed seizures of public, federally-owned areas (Bundy reference):

    Advocates for the seizure and sale of U.S. parks and public lands are training their sights on marine coastal areas with a new bill that would give state governors unprecedented power over America’s coastal national parks.

    The bill, introduced by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA), would give governors veto power over fishery management decisions in national parks and, in particular, would enable the governor’s political appointees to undo planned no-fishing zones that would help restore the health of reefs, fish, and other marine species.

    Critics argue that the legislation, S. 2807, would undermine established, science-based wildlife management plans, degrade the conservation protections afforded through America’s National Park System, and is part of a broader anti-park policy agenda that some members of Congress have been seeking to advance.

    This legislation fits largely within the realm of Bundy-style seizing and selling of public land. The National Park System makes wildlife and land management decisions based on conservation science, towards the goal of preserving the natural resources, systems, and processes of the park system for the enjoyment of all Americans. States often prioritize development and extraction over conservation, which can compromise the ecological integrity of publicly-owned lands like national parks and can have serious implications for wildlife. […]

    Think Progress link

  9. gijoel says

    I vaguely recall a proposition recently to buy some Queensland farms recently. As fertilizer run off is a major pollutant in the GBR.

  10. emergence says

    I can only hope that the conservative planet-wreckers will start to change their tune once the damage to the environment gets so blatant that they can’t deny it anymore. Maybe they’ll start caring once it starts to affect their lives.

    I wonder if generational inertia will help at all? How successful have conservatives been in convincing millennials that we don’t need to worry about the environment? Hopefully, in a century or so all of the greedy plutocrats will have died off and their successors will become increasingly marginalized. I’m probably being colossally overoptimistic, though.

  11. Michael says

    Ultimately impractical and too costly, but could we slow things down a little by towing a few large icebergs from Antarctica to cool the waters around the reef?

  12. bachfiend says

    As an Australian I hope the Queensland coal mine won’t go ahead. I also expect that it won’t go ahead because at current coal prices, it’s grossly uneconomic and the mining company won’t get bank financing. The banks are facing losses on other loans to coal miners.

    My other hope is that the current Liberal-National Party federal government in the so far uncalled Double Disillusion election on July 2 (Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull threatened to call a double dissolution election on July 2 if the Senate rejected a minor piece of legislation in a special sitting over 3 weeks he’d called – which they promptly rejected on the 1st day). The opposition federal Labor Party has ambitious goals regarding AGW in contrast to the federal government which has extremely modest aims with no program and very little funding as a fig leaf for their AGW denialism.

    Our so-called environment minister Greg Hunt fabricated a quote from David Attenborough in a recent documentary claiming the Great Barrier Reef is in great health.

  13. jacksprocket says

    “I can only hope that the conservative planet-wreckers will start to change their tune once the damage to the environment gets so blatant that they can’t deny it anymore.”

    They certainly will- and all the environmental devastation will be OUR FAULT.

  14. emergence says

    You know, even if environmental damage ends up making most of civilization collapse, there may still be some pockets of humanity left. Hopefully, the survivors will learn something from almost going extinct. At least the petroleum corporations will have collapsed too.

    The sad thing is, the climate denialists are probably only going to acknowledge that climate change is a thing once major coastal cities are permanently 3 feet underwater. Even then, they probably still won’t admit that humans are causing it.

  15. Lofty says

    The Queensland state centre right (Labor) government is either extremely cunning or extremely stupid about coal mining. They know they are clinging to power by the thinnest of threads in what is normally a Florida style devout conservative state. Therefore being seen to support mining jobs will keep them in power for a little longer, especially seeing as the Federal far right conservatives (Liberal) are currently very much on the nose. With the mine approval comes a zero guarantee of State funds unlike their predecessors promises. So, optimistic pundits have it that the State Labor government knows the approval means essentially nothing as the world market for coal continues to deteriorate. Australia’s main markets are all threatening to stop all coal imports in the near future anyway, so it’s doubtful that any coal will be mined. Peabody Coal, the US giant that owns mines bought in Australia at the peak of the post 2008 boom, is under bankruptcy protection. South Australia’s last remaining coal powered power plant is due to shut down any week now. Solar thermal plus storage is being mooted for the town that hosts the coal plant.

    Mind you the reef is probably fucked anyway, due to the projected lag in temperature rise. The next El Nino may finish the reef off in any case if current trends continue. The last big one in 1998 is still fresh in everyone’s minds.

  16. Lofty says

    Oh and don’t forget all the other fisheries and corals all over the world collapsing as we speak. Australia’s great barrier Reef is merely one disaster amongst many.

    And lastly, there are the morons who think the answer to keeping the reef colourful is to import high temperature tolerant corals from the Gulfs of Arabia. Then someone else mentioned how well the cane toad’s introduction went.

    Luckily I have dived at least once on the GBR while it was still healthy, I’ll take that memory with me to the grave,

  17. Ragutis says

    It’s starting to look like aquarium hobbyists trading frags might be the closest thing corals will have to saviors. Sad that so many species are at a point where they pretty much only exist in captivity.

    Any chance there’s the will in Australia to implement and fund large scale coral farming to replenish the GBR? There’s been some (modest) success doing so in Florida.

  18. shelly says

    Sorry for the long post, but I wanted to answer some Qs in one hit. Also no coffee, so this might not make sense.

    The reefs that are worst affected are those north of Cairns, where there’s no run off from farming. (Run off — especially from cane farms — is a problem further south.) This current round of bleaching is a heat-related issue caused by an El Nino on top of increased summer temperatures.

    The El Nino event meant a decrease in rain — so not much cloud cover — and fewer Coral Sea cyclones. This season, only two tropical storms affected north-eastern Australia: TC Tatiana, which formed and died over deep water, and TC Winston, which skirted the coast as a low. Cyclones do damage the reef — they break up branching corals and increase turbidity — but tend to be localised and short-lived. This year, ex-TC Winston probably reduced damage on the reefs south of Cairns because it brought cloud cover.

    It’s not just the GBR; bleaching has also been recorded in Western Australia and in temperate reefs around Sydney.

    Tropical corals might well shift south in response to climate change. But they face problems of coastal topography (the shelf is very narrow in the south-east), pollution and light availability.

    Idk about coral farming. Caribbean reefs are depauperate in comparison with the GBR (ie three Acropora species vs lots). That’s a complex ecosystem to rebuild.

    To quote the Australian Financial Review: world is fukt

  19. Ichthyic says

    We’re killing it.

    93% is bleached. less than 1% shows zero signs of damage.

    killing it?

    no.. killing it would be say…20-30% bleached.

    it’s killed.

    people just do not get this.

    we failed.

    this game we played? it’s done.

    there is no going back, no do-overs.

    let it sink in.

    we failed.

  20. Ichthyic says

    …and as others here have already pointed out, this pattern is hardly limited to Australia.

    I saw heavy bleaching as far back as the late 80s, both in the atlantic and pacific, in the carribean, in Mexico, and in French Polynesia… and that was 25 years ago.

    I guess the consolation prize is that even though many of us knew this was happening back then, even if we completely STOPPED using fossil fuels 20 years ago… I don’t think we could have even then stopped this from happening. it was likely already too late.

    of course, since then, we actually have poured more C02 into the atmosphere than ever before, and the last 10 years, even MORE than the last 20!

    so, point is moot anyway.

    I have no idea what will come back AFTER we finally decide to stop pissing our future away, but it won’t be the great barrier reef like it was. it won’t be the tremendous diversity we had. it won’t look anything like it did 30 years ago… anywhere.

    we already gave that up.

    I’m even past being mad about it at this point. being mad is something you do to motivate yourself to do something.

    there is nothing left to do, the damage is already done. Fight for a different future, I suppose, but the past is dead.

  21. Ichthyic says

    “I have six students on Lizard right now and they have been asking me where all the fish are. Well, they have either moved on, died … I don’t know. But you lose the small fish, then the bigger ones … then it all collapses… It’s happening right now – not in some future where we’re dead. Kids are saying ‘grown ups, what are you doing? You are stealing our future, our livelihood, our wonderment’.


  22. unclefrogy says

    I want to use fancy words to try and say what I see is happening but can’t find any. We humans are an ignorant stubborn lot.
    It has been said for most of my life that bad things are happening to all the life on living things on earth for most of my life and I will be 70 years old next birthday. They have been true and they have happened pretty much in the time frame predicted. Some times we changed what we were doing and things started to recover.
    It has only begrudgingly and reluctantly that the those who had a vested interested financially in continuing doing what ever it was that was at the root of the problem has ever agreed to stop. Some still want to use DDT on some things because reasons. It will cost much less if we do.
    what is it called a bottle neck we are racing toward? Many fair things will die and pass away, the mix and the distribution of species will shift .
    The part of these changes that being science generated observation and technological causes that is not being mentioned enough is the financial implications. The most precarious and sensitive processes on earth the ones that have the most unpredictable swings that effects us humans the most are economic.
    The current practice is mostly short term quarterly analysis with some segments doing some long term planing very few are looking out very much past 5 years. There is a train wreck up ahead of unprecedented proportions in fact it might have already started the trouble is the engine is at the back pushing.
    uncle frogy

  23. Rob Grigjanis says

    unclefrogy @24:

    Many fair things will die and pass away, the mix and the distribution of species will shift .

    Many fair things have passed away, and will continue to do so, long before we are gone.

    There is a train wreck up ahead of unprecedented proportions in fact it might have already started the trouble is the engine is at the back pushing.

    Yeah, and it seems the best we can do is reduce the acceleration. In my more selfish moments, I’m glad I don’t have more than a couple of decades left, max.

  24. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I guess the consolation prize is that even though many of us knew this was happening back then, even if we completely STOPPED using fossil fuels 20 years ago… I don’t think we could have even then stopped this from happening. it was likely already too late.

    We can fix the problem – well, partially fix it. At least, we can pull CO2 out of the air and water, and reverse warming.

    Here is an amateur description of the proposal:

    I’m not basing it only on this source. I’ve seen several reputable people support this geo-engeering plan. The short of it is to dig up a bunch of limestone, heat it to release CO2, capture that CO2 during the heating, dump the CO2 into basalt deposits where it will form chemically stable bonds with the basalt, and take the lime (produced by heating the limestone), grind it up, and dump it in the ocean, where it will absorb CO2 to become limestone.

    I’ve seen reputable estimates in the neighborhood of about 10 terawatts of power running for many decades in order to reduce our CO2 levels to acceptable levels. Currently, the world uses somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 terawatts of electricity. This is huge, but it’s not impossible. (Because of thermodynamics, it should be no surprise that to capture that CO2 out of the air and water, it will require about as much energy as we obtained when we put it there in the first place.) To do this would require expending massive amounts of money and labor, in the neighborhood of 1% GDP, but that’s also in the neighborhood of what we spent on the military for wars for oil, and I think this is money much better spent.

    Of course, the only way that we can do this is massive rollouts of nuclear, and a complete stop of use of fossil fuels.

    PS: I’ve also seen people ask “why not just find some island or coast composed in large part of basalt, grind up the island / coast, and dump that in the ocean to absorb CO2”. I don’t have an answer to that question at this time.

  25. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    EL#26, from your source:

    A better idea is to sequester the carbon dioxide in basalt rock, which is the planet’s most abundant bedrock. Basalt rock contains high concentrations of calcium, magnesium, and iron oxides which can ionically bond with CO2 molecules. Once bonded, that CO2 is retained over geologic time – forever, from the human standpoint.

    Care to show links to the chemical evidence that basalt will actually bind with and not release CO2 at the temperatures and pressures within the earth? I, as a chemist, don’t see where neutral (not basic) rock will absorb acidic species…..

  26. Ichthyic says

    We can fix the problem – well, partially fix it. At least, we can pull CO2 out of the air and water, and reverse warming.

    to analogize… that might save the living, but it does nothing for the dead.