Media Release Climate Change

Reef bleaching findings show urgency required on emissions reductions

November 5, 2021

New research published today shows how much the Great Barrier Reef is suffering in the climate crisis and highlights the urgent need for rapid emissions reductions this decade, the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) says.

The research reveals that 80% of the global icon has bleached severely at least once since 2016, and that only 2% of the entire system has been untouched by bleaching.

Bleaching is a heat stress response by corals to marine heatwaves, causing them to lose their colour and turn white in severe cases. Bleaching can kill corals and weaken those that manage to recover. Bleaching events are driven by global heating mainly caused by the burning of fossil fuels like coal and gas.

AMCS Reef campaigner Cherry Muddle said the study underlined how desperately we need urgent climate action this decade.

“The Reef cannot wait until 2050. The Morrison government must join other countries at COP26 in setting strong climate targets this decade,” she said.

“This study shows that repeated heatwaves driven by global warming are causing a combination of impacts on corals along the 2,300km length of our Great Barrier Reef. A healthy Reef can recover from coral bleaching, but it needs time to recover. Australia drastically reducing emissions this decade and immediately halting new fossil fuel developments will help. It will contribute to the global effort to keep warming to 1.5C – a critical threshold for our Reef.

“Unfortunately, the Morrison government’s current commitments are not compatible with the long term survival of the Reef.

“The Reef’s wildlife, the industries and communities it supports need us to do a lot more this decade to reduce our emissions and ensure its survival for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.”

The study, led by Professor Terry Hughes from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, also found that many places that were once refuges from coral bleaching are no longer safe. The area affected by coral bleaching has increased over time.

However, it also found that 19.3% of the Reef hasn’t yet been severely bleached. These parts of the Reef are still healthy and we need to try our utmost to maintain them for future generations, said Ms Muddle.

“A  focus on reef resilience measures such as improving water quality and reducing the impact of commercial fishing are critically important but could well be just a finger in an inundated dyke unless the Morrison government shows real leadership and joins with other developed countries to tackle climate change this decade,” added Ms Muddle.