A recent New York Times article entitled Coral vs Coal details the struggle in Australia between the climate change deniers and the climate change chroniclers. And unfortunately it does appear to come down to choosing between the two.

“The reef, one of the largest living things on earth, has started to fail. Whether it can recover is unclear. An organism roughly the size of Germany is bleaching to death…. Bleaching occurs when excessive heat and sunlight cause the algae that give coral reefs their shimmering colors to create toxins.”

Luckily, I got to see a tiny part of the Great Barrier Reef in 2001. My best friend Robert Thorne and I went sea kayaking with a commercial outfitter called Aussie Sea Kayak Company, which as far as I can tell from multiple searches, is no longer in business. We paddled around Hook Island in the Whitsundays on a week long camping trip, and went snorkeling every day. I got to see giant clams, turtles, and a huge fish I had never seen before I later realized was a kind of Triggerfish unlike anything we have in Belize. The coral was beautiful. It breaks my heart to read that 90% of the Great Barrier Reef has been affected by coral bleaching.

Sea kayaking in the Whitsunday Islands, Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Sea kayaking in the Whitsunday Islands, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Unfortunately, the politicians in Australia seem to have their heads in the sand as much as many of our politicians do when it comes to protecting our natural resources from degradation.

“Climate change? What climate change? … The reef is as irreplaceable as this planet. Australia has overcapacity in electricity generation. It should close several of its old coal-fired plants. Rich in renewable and clean-energy sources, Australia should be a leader, not a laggard, on climate change. Reputations, like the reef, are easily bleached.”

Coral-Bleaching-at-Lizard-Island4

Coral bleaching is a phenomena that results from high ocean temperatures. Coral thrives in a narrow temperature window, unable to grow if the water becomes either too hot or too cold. Sometimes a worldwide or regional weather pattern of particularly high temperatures will cause coral bleaching, where the coral dies as a result, turning white rather than it’s natural color of tan, yellow, brown, or green.

According to this excellent blog post on the subject by Dr. Jeff Masters of Wunderblog, the entire globe (but mostly the Pacific) is currently experiencing an extended coral bleaching event.

The last coral bleaching event we experienced out at Glover’s Reef in Belize where our island is located was in 1998. This high temperature season culminated in Hurricane Mitch, one of the strongest hurricanes to date, that drastically altered our island. It does not appear that the current event is affecting us out at Glover’s Reef in Belize; the ocean temperatures have so far are remaining normal, which is approximately 80 degrees F.

Belize coral diving

The current El Nino is not only affecting weather patterns across the US and the Caribbean, but it has also set in motion another widespread coral bleaching event. Coral bleaching occurs when ocean temperatures rise too much above average, and the coral organism reacts by discharging the algae it depends on for food. After this happens the coral will die, leaving behind its white skeleton of pure calcium carbonate. This is how the event gets its name ‘coral bleaching’.

Coral bleaching causes a devastating side effect since the entire reef ecosystem is based on the food base provided by coral. Tropical seas where coral reefs abound are traditionally nutrient poor areas of the ocean, and the ecosystems in these areas are dependent on the coral providing food for almost everything inhabiting these areas. The snowballing effect of removing the food base causes many species of fish and other organisms to either move or die off completely. So bleaching events are noted as being major eco system changing events.

For more information please read this excellent article describing the current coral bleaching event around the globe along with its many severe consequences.