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The Great Barrier Reef and the coal mine that could kill it

 

Great Barrier Reef

A watery grave? … The Great Barrier Reef has lost around half its coral in the last 30 years, and scientists believe the vast majority of it will die if waters keep on warming. Photograph: Doug Perrine/Nature Picture Library/Corbis

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The Great Barrier Reef and the coal mine that could kill it” was written by Tim Flannery, for The Guardian on Friday 1st August 2014 17.00 UTC

These are dark days for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. On 29 July, the last major regulatory hurdle facing the development of Australia’s largest coal mine was removed by Greg Hunt, minister for the environment. The Carmichael coal mine, owned by India’s Adani Group, will cover 200 sq km and produce 60m tonnes of coal a year – enough to supply electricity for 100 million people. Located in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, 400km inland from the reef, it will require a major rail line, which is yet to receive final approval, to transport the coal, which must then be loaded on to ships at the ports of Hay Point and Abbot Point, near Gladstone on the Queensland coast, adjacent to the southern section of the reef. Both ports require dredging and expansion to manage the increased volume of shipping. Once aboard, the coal must be shipped safely through the coral labyrinth that is the Great Barrier Reef, and on to India, where it will be burned in great coal-fired power plants.

The proposed development will affect the reef at just about every stage. Indeed, so vast is the project’s reach that it is best thought of not as an Australian, or even an Australian-Indian project, but one of global impact and significance.

Often hailed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef stretches 1,400 miles along Queensland’s coast and covers an area the size of Germany. It is home to a truly extraordinary variety of living species. From giant grouper to tiny eels that inhabit the anuses of sea cucumbers, its creatures amaze the thousands who visit it each year, as well as the millions who watch it virtually through nature documentaries. But what fascinates scientists is the way the myriad reef organisms co-operate to create such a prolific ecosystem in what is an essentially unproductive sea. The trick lies in give and take: coral polyps and giant clams allow their tissues to be colonised by algae, which, in return for shelter and nutrients, provide food via photosynthesis. The reef organisms even co-operate to produce clouds, by releasing cloud-seeding molecules into the atmosphere, so that the reef is protected from ultraviolet radiation.

Remarkably, the earliest evidence of this astonishing ecosystem is found not in Australia, but in the green hills near Verona in northern Italy. There, 54-million-year-old sediments laid down in a shallow lagoon preserved the remains of the oldest coral reef fish known. Just a million years earlier, the planet had been devastated by a gargantuan eruption of natural gas, which caused unprecedented greenhouse warming. The oceans turned acidic, corroding the sea floor; the waters warmed, and countless organisms perished in a great extinction event. The first modern reef-building and inhabiting creatures appeared in the wake of this cataclysm, and they have flourished ever since.

Coal Loading Terminal in Australia

A coal loading terminal in Newcastle, Australia … a major new mining project in Queensland’s Galilee Basin will involve moving huge volumes of coal through ports adjacent to the southern section of the Great Barrier Reef. Photograph: Ian Waldie/Corbis

When the region around Verona was a tropical lagoon, a seaway known as the Tethys stretched from Europe all the way across Asia to Australia. Reef organisms flourished in the ancient seaway, laying the foundations for today’s pan-tropical coral reef communities. But it was off the Queensland coast that these organisms found conditions most to their liking, allowing them to build the greatest coral wonderland on Earth.

Today, the Carmichael mine development is occurring adjacent to what is now a very sick Great Barrier Reef. A 2012 study established that around half of the coral composing the reef is already dead – killed by pesticide runoff, muddy sediment from land clearing, predatory starfish, coral bleaching and various other impacts.

 

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