Global marine heatwave a stark reminder: President’s statement

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a leading authority in climate and oceanic research, declared a global coral bleaching event overnight.

This declaration, and more evidence of the mass bleaching event occurring on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), is a stark reminder of the entirely predictable consequences of extensive global warming for Australia and the planet.

The damage to the GBR and reefs globally serves as a poignant symbol of the real-time impacts of a warming climate and the increasing frequency of severe weather events.

The widespread bleaching of the GBR and the resulting threat to coral survival are disasters for the diversity of reef ecosystems. This bleaching also significantly impacts the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Australians and the communities they reside in.

The frequency of marine heatwaves and mass bleaching on the GBR weaken its ability to recover and makes the entire ecosystem less resilient to a changing climate. The effects of bleaching range from short-term physiological damage to widespread mortality.

As an independent and authoritative science adviser, the Academy has long observed that climate change is the primary threat to the GBR and its connected systems. Scientists expect more severe, irreversible, and costly impacts unless bold action is taken to reduce emissions.

Simply continuing with a business-as-usual approach is no longer an option.

It is crucial that Australia implements strong and effective national and local environmental laws.

These laws must prioritise scientific evidence and prevent practices that damage the GBR’s ability to adapt to climate change, including damage to the habitats in the GBR catchments.

To increase our chances of success, we must collaborate with local communities, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, to ensure we utilise all available evidence and knowledge.

Data and evidence must be shared and understood by all landholders and stakeholders so that they can be informed participants in the decision-making process and incentivised to restore the GBR catchments.

The Academy’s Reef Futures Roundtables Report published last year highlighted that in the medium-term, there are opportunities to slow the decline in the health of the Great Barrier Reef, but this requires Australia to take further action now.

The upcoming review of the Reef 2050 plan needs to show ambition and align with the scale of the challenge-acknowledging that there can be no quick fix and putting all options on the table, from finding new ways to manage the GBR catchments to institutional arrangements, activating required resources, protecting and restoring habitats where possible, and drawing on Traditional Knowledges.

The Great Barrier Reef is a precious natural wonder, and safeguarding it demands collective effort and unwavering commitment.

Professor Chennupati Jagadish AC PresAA FREng FTSE

President, Australian Academy of Science

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