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Great Barrier Reef Can Be Saved

Apr 07, 2015 11:05 AM EDT
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Just after recent research warned that the world's most iconic ecosystems, including the Great Barrier Reef, may collapse under climate change, a new study is saying that this iconic site can in fact be saved.

Leading coral reef scientists say Australia could restore the Great Barrier Reef to its former glory through better policies that focus on science, protection and conservation. In the journal Nature Climate Change, the authors argue that all the stressors on the Reef need to be reduced in order for it to recover.

One of the seven wonders of the natural world, the Great Barrier Reef is home to the world's largest collection of coral reefs, with 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc, according to UNESCO's World Heritage Centre.

However, it is well known that corals in the Great Barrier Reef are diminishing due to ocean acidification - an increase in acidic waters due to buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Worse still, studies have shown that ocean acidification is eating away at the structural integrity of these unique marine animals, causing coral to become more susceptible to both predators and disease.

In fact, the Great Barrier Reef's growth rate has plummeted by 40 percent since the mid-1970s.

But overfishing, nutrient runoff and unprecedented amounts of dredging are exacerbating these climate change-related threats. By eliminating these stressors, the Great Barrier Reef may have a chance in our warming world.

"We need to move beyond the gloom and doom to identify how the decline of the Great Barrier Reef can be turned around," co-author Professor Terry Hughes, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (JCU), said in a statement. "Our paper shows that every major stressor on the Reef has been escalating for decades - more and more fishing, pollution, coastal development, dredging, and now for the past 20 years we're also seeing the impacts of climate change."

"We now have a very good handle on why the Great Barrier Reef is in trouble," added co-author Jon Brodie. "The challenge is to use that scientific knowledge to prevent further damage and give the Reef some breathing space that would allow it to recover." (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Ed Roberts)

Countries around the world are just now starting to take action against global carbon emissions, and the researchers believe in order to save the Great Barrier Reef, Australia needs to lead the march away from fossil fuels. Not to mention the continent should put more emphasis on conservation and protection of this World Heritage Site, enact permanent legislative bans on dumping both capital and maintenance dredge spoil within the Reef, and create a 50-year plan and adequate funding to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and agricultural runoff.

These, in the authors' opinion, are the first steps towards restoring the Great Barrier Reef to its former glory.

"If that means less dredging, less coal mining and more sustainable fishing, then that's what Australia has to do," said co-author Jon Day, also from the ARC Centre for Coral Reef Studies at JCU. "Business as usual is not an option because the values for which the Reef was listed as World Heritage are already deteriorating, and will only get worse unless a change in policy occurs."

Back in September, Australia announced a 35-year plan to save the Great Barrier Reef from climate change as well as human threats - though some claim that this plan is not good enough. But as the home to this natural wonder, Australia has started to reduce runoff of nutrients, sediments and pesticides from land into the Reef, and is improving regulations for dumping capital dredge-spoil.

"This paper raises awareness of the untapped opportunities to incorporate science into better policy to ensure we still have a magnificent Great Barrier Reef in the future," Hughes concluded.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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