The Great Barrier Reef should be added to the list of world heritage sites that are “in danger”, a team of scientists concluded after conducting a mission to the world’s largest coral reef system.
In a new UN-backed report published on Monday, the scientists said the reef faces serious threats from the climate crisis and that action to save it must be taken “with the utmost urgency”.
“The mission team concludes that the property faces serious threats that could have adverse effects on its own characteristics, and therefore meets the criteria for inscription on the list of World Heritage in Danger,” the report said.
The 10-day monitoring mission by UNESCO scientists in March came months after the World Heritage Committee made an initial recommendation to list Australia’s Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” due to the accelerating effects of human-caused climate change.
At the time, the agency called on Australia to “urgently” address the worsening threats of the climate crisis, but received immediate pushback from the Australian government under former prime minister Scott Morrison.
The long-awaited final mission report outlines key steps that scientists say must be taken urgently, although the report itself was released after a six-month delay. Originally scheduled to be published in May before the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting in Russia, the report was delayed due to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
The recommendations include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, re-evaluating proposed projects and credit schemes, and increasing financial resources to ultimately protect the reefs.
Australia’s environment minister Tanya Plibersek argued at a press conference on Tuesday that the UNESCO report unfairly puts 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 worldwide,” Plibersek said. “There is no need to unite the Great Barrier Reef in this way.”
Encompassing nearly 133,000 square miles and home to more than 1,500 species of fish and more than 400 species of hard coral, the Great Barrier Reef is an extremely critical marine ecosystem on Earth.
It also contributes $4.8 billion annually to Australia’s 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 long-term survival of the reef has been questioned. Ocean warming and acidification caused by the climate crisis has caused widespread coral bleaching. Last year, scientists found that the global extent of living coral has halved since 1950 due to climate change, overfishing and pollution.
The outlook is similarly bleak, with scientists predicting that approximately 70% to 90% of all living coral around the world will disappear in the next 20 years. The Great Barrier Reef, in particular, has suffered many giant mass bleaching events since 2015, caused by extremely warm ocean temperatures brought on by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas.
During UNESCO’s monitoring missions, reef managers found that the Great Barrier Reef is suffering its sixth mass bleaching event due to heat stress caused by climate change. Aerial surveys of approximately 750 reefs show widespread bleaching across the reef, with the most severe bleaching observed in northern and central areas.
Bleaching occurs when a stressed coral is deprived of its food source. With deteriorating conditions, the coral can starve and die, turning white as its carbonate skeleton is exposed.
“Even the most robust corals require almost a decade to recover,” Jodie Rummer, associate professor of Marine Biology at James Cook University in Townsville, previously told CNN. “So we’re really losing that window of recovery. We’re getting back-to-back bleaching events, back-to-back heat waves. And, and the corals are simply not adapting to these new conditions.”
Weeks before the mission, global scientists with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published an alarming report concluding that with each extreme warming event, the planet’s vital ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef are being pushed further towards tipping points beyond which irreversible changes can occur.
While researchers on the mission assessed the dire state of one of the seven natural wonders of the world, they witnessed how the climate crisis has drastically changed the coral reef system.
After the report was published, Professor Lesley Hughes of the Climate Council, said that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius along with “deep and rapid emissions reductions this decade” were needed to give the reef a “fighting chance”.”
A decision on whether the reef should be officially labeled as “in danger” will be made by the World Heritage Committee next year, after UNESCO compiles a more detailed report that will include responses from the Australian federal and state governments.