The Great Barrier Reef should be added to the list of “endangered” World Heritage sites, a team of scientists have concluded after conducting a mission to the world’s largest coral reef system.
In a new UN-backed report released on Monday, scientists said the reef faces major threats due to the climate crisis and action to save it needs to be taken “urgently”.
“The mission team concludes that the property faces major threats which could have deleterious effects on its inherent characteristics, and therefore meets the criteria for inclusion on the List of World Heritage in Danger,” the report states.
The 10-day monitoring mission by UNESCO scientists in March came months after the World Heritage Committee issued an initial recommendation to classify Australia’s Great Barrier Reef as ‘endangered’ due to the accelerating impacts of human-induced climate change.
At the time, the agency called on Australia to “urgently” address the growing threats of the climate crisis, but received an immediate pushback from the Australian government under former Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
The long-awaited final mission report outlines key steps that scientists say need to be taken urgently, although the report itself was released after a six-month delay. Originally scheduled to be released in May ahead of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting in Russia, the report was postponed due to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Recommendations include drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reassessing proposed projects and credit schemes, and increasing financial resources to ultimately protect reefs.
Australian Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek told a news conference on Tuesday that the UNESCO report unfairly shines the spotlight on the Great Barrier Reef.
“Yes, climate change is a risk to ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef, but that means it’s a risk to every reef in the world,” Plibersek said. “There is no need to isolate the Great Barrier Reef like this.”
Spanning nearly 133,000 square miles and home to over 1,500 species of fish and over 400 species of hard coral, the Great Barrier Reef is an extremely critical marine ecosystem on Earth.
It also contributes $4.8 billion a year to the Australian economy and supports 64,000 jobs in tourism, fishing and research, according to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.
But as the planet continues to warm, due to the increasing amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the reef’s long-term survival is in question. Warming oceans and acidification caused by the climate crisis have led to widespread coral bleaching. Last year, scientists discovered that the global extent of living coral had halved since 1950 due to climate change, overfishing and pollution.
The outlook is equally bleak, with scientists predicting that around 70-90% of all living coral in the world will disappear in the next 20 years. The Great Barrier Reef, in particular, has suffered numerous devastating mass bleaching events since 2015, caused by extremely hot ocean temperatures brought on by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas.
During UNESCO monitoring missions, reef managers discovered that the Great Barrier Reef was experiencing its sixth mass bleaching event due to heat stress caused by climate change. Aerial surveys of around 750 reefs show widespread bleaching across the reef, with the most severe bleaching seen in the northern and central areas.
Bleaching occurs when stressed coral is deprived of its food source. As conditions worsen, corals can starve and die, turning white when their carbonate skeleton is exposed.
“Even the hardiest corals take nearly a decade to recover,” Jodie Rummer, associate professor of marine biology at James Cook University in Townsville, told CNN. “So we are really losing that recovery window. We have back-to-back bleaching events, back-to-back heat waves. And, and the corals just don’t adapt to these new conditions.
Weeks before the mission, global scientists from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released an alarming report concluding that with every extreme warming event, the planet’s vital ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef Coral are further pushed towards tipping points beyond which irreversible changes can occur.
As mission researchers assessed the dire state of one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, they witnessed how the climate crisis has dramatically changed the coral reef system.
Following the release of the report, Professor Lesley Hughes of the Climate Council, said limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius along with “deep and rapid reductions in emissions this decade” are needed to give the reef “ a fighting chance”.”
A decision on whether the reef should be officially labeled as “endangered” will be made by the World Heritage Committee next year, once UNESCO has compiled a more in-depth report that will include responses from the federal and Australian states.