How Australia Is Trying to Save Coral Reefs From Climate Change

When Peter Harrison logs into a virtual meeting room one morning to discuss his life’s work, he is doing so while in the field. He is on a research vessel near Hook Island, one of the Whitsunday Islands off the coast of Queensland, Australia. He is taking a break from doing yet another coral restoration experiment on the Great Barrier Reef.

Just days later, officials from around the world would convene in Glasgow, Scotland, for a United Nations summit to discuss the broader crisis that necessitates work like Harrison’s: climate change.

“Like all reefs around the world, the Great Barrier Reef is under increasing pressure — and primarily from human impacts,” says Harrison, a distinguished professor and director of the Marine Ecology Research Centre at Southern Cross University.

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As world leaders continue to meet in Scotland to discuss major actions that can be taken to halt climate change, experts say that while more drastic, coordinated efforts are still needed, some promising projects are underway in Australia to address one of the many impacts of global warming: coral health. These experiments may provide a useful model for other countries trying to preserve their own reefs.

Not long before the U.N. Climate Change Conference — also known as COP26 — began, a damning report painted a picture of just how many corals have been lost in recent years. The findings from the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, released in October, show that 14% of the world’s coral was lost between 2009 and 2018 alone. Australia, South Asia and the Pacific were the regions that experienced the greatest declines since 2010, according to a news release attached to the report. Australia alone is home to more than 16% of Earth’s total reef area, the network notes.

Within the global trend of declining coral cover, Australia’s reefs “have endured a turbulent two decades, with a series of disturbances and recovery periods,” David Souter, chief research officer at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and main author of the monitoring report, says in an email.

Australian reefs have lost about a quarter of their corals since 2007, and the Great Barrier Beef specifically lost about a quarter of its own hard cover between 1994 and 2019, Souter adds.

The main culprit for the losses is something called coral bleaching, a phenomenon that causes corals to expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues and turn completely white, as defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Souter notes that bleaching is caused by rising sea surface temperatures — a major result of climate change. One event in 1998 alone killed 8% of the world’s coral, according to the global monitoring group’s report. In Australia specifically, there have been three mass bleaching events since 2016, and these have taken a “heavy toll,” Morgan Pratchett, a professor and reef research leader at James Cook University’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, says in an email.

The state of Australia’s reefs is not completely dire, experts note. Pratchett says the effects of the recent bleaching events vary and there has been “remarkable recovery” in some regions. Harrison, of Southern Cross University, describes the Great Barrier Reef as a “mosaic,” with different levels of impact and some “beautifully healthy, thriving reefs” that escaped the bleaching.

The problem, Harrison says, is that recovery is “very patchy” in many parts of the Great Barrier Reef, and fewer reefs are recovering naturally because of the significant loss of adult breeding corals.

“Our real fear is that the next bleaching event will be followed by another major bleaching event at increasingly shorter timescales to the point where into the future, it’s predicted that some level of bleaching may be occurring every year,” he adds.

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This increasing frequency also concerns Anna Marsden, managing director of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

“There are threats that are finally getting on top of the system, and the system is finally unable to repair itself,” Marsden says. “The best way that someone explained it to me was if coral reefs were in a game of Snakes and Ladders. Climate change is dumping a bucket of snakes on the game.”

The impact on Australia — and so many other countries that are seeing their corals die — is multilayered. While coral reefs only cover 0.2% of the global seafloor, they support at least 25% of marine species, according to the monitoring group’s report. In Australia, there has been a “marked decline in the abundance and diversity of coral-associated fishes” since the recent bleaching events, according to Pratchett.

Beyond this clear environmental influence and its consequences, Australia’s coral reefs are a key economic driver. Souter, of the marine science institute, notes that the Great Barrier Reef contributes about 6.4 billion Australian dollars ($4.7 billion) to the country’s economy and supports 64,000 jobs in sectors such as reef-based tourism and fisheries. The U.N. World Tourism Organization did not respond to a request for information on data that might illustrate the impact that declining coral health has had on tourism in the country.

“The Queensland tourism industry is very conscious of the threat posed by declining reef health and water quality, and are very vocal in calling for increased action on climate change and water quality,” Pratchett adds.

Anecdotally, Harrison says the tourism industry tied to the Great Barrier Reef has been “resilient,” with operators being able to adapt and diversify where they bring visitors, even if they have to shift from going to “formerly spectacularly beautiful areas.” He adds that the impacts “have been more severe under COVID than they were probably from the actual bleaching events.” There’s also a storytelling element that comes with showing visitors the reality of the situation, says Marsden.

“Our tourism is very well-managed, so you’re not going to hurt the reef by visiting it,” she says. “Visiting the reef, witnessing the scale of the issue, diving with marine scientists, witnessing how they’re restoring and what they can do — coming away, you are a better citizen of the planet because you understand your footprint.”

But there is an effect that’s intangible, too.

“Australia is a marine nation,” Souter says. “Coral reefs are part of our national identity and the rich culture of Australia’s coastal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

That importance of national identity might be what’s driving the many restoration efforts that are underway across the country. Harrison leads research that’s focused on enhancing coral reproduction, a process that’s been referred to as “coral IVF,” according to Reuters.

The project tries to mimic the natural sexual production of reef-building corals by capturing just a small amount of the trillions of eggs and sperm that are released during what are called mass spawning events and moving the samples into “floating larval pools” developed by Harrison. The team then tries to “maximize the fertilization” in an effort to “increase the rates at which the larvae are settling onto damaged reef areas, and therefore kick-starting the recovery and the return of corals to dominate the reef,” Harrison says.

The research has been successful so far, Harrison adds. He notes that there are about a dozen active experiments on the Great Barrier Reef and the team is “getting very similar responses all the time.” Harrison clarifies in an email that this type of restoration can be “applied to other damaged reefs around the world, including the Caribbean.”

Elsewhere, the Australian Institute of Marine Science is tackling the problem from numerous angles through its own experiments while also being a major contributor to the Australian Government’s Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program, which has various partners involved.

“As leaders in reef recovery, adaptation and restoration research, we’re looking at understanding the natural capacity of corals and reefs … to adapt to warming oceans, investigate ways we can enhance corals’ ability to resist high temperatures and develop methods to scale up and fast-track coral recovery,” Souter says.

One project he describes involves scientists collecting wild corals adapted to the warmer sea temperatures of the northern region of the Great Barrier Reef and selectively breeding them with coral from cooler waters to “speed up” adaptation. Another explores making “very small changes” to the clouds above reefs to reduce the periods of high water temperature that cause coral bleaching.

Harrison, however, cautions that projects like his own are “only buying time for corals.” And Pratchett says he is “yet to be convinced that we can engineer solutions to restore coral reefs.”

“Reducing emissions is the most important action to minimize the impact of climate change on coral reefs,” adds Souter. “However, even if we can limit the global temperature rise to below 1.5 or 2.0 degrees, it will take decades for ocean temperatures to reduce. In this context coral reefs will likely continue to decline and new methods to support reefs will be required if we are to sustain them through this period.”

What will also be required is “real and effective action on international cooperation,” Harrison says, pointing to the ongoing discussions at the U.N. conference in Glasgow. Marsden, of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, hopes the gathered leaders and officials are ambitious, and encourages them to “be brilliant.”

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Leaders from Australia specifically also need to do more, Pratchett says. The country is facing a dichotomy, where public support for climate change action does not always align with policy, at least in part due to Australia’s reliance on fossil fuels. Marsden says the country can be viewed as the “poster child” for climate change because of both its ecosystems and the fact that its “entire economy is generated from digging stuff up.”

At the U.N. summit, Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not join an international agreement to curb global methane emissions by 30% by 2030 — which garnered commitments from more than 100 countries — and also did not strengthen Australia’s 2030 target for reducing emissions, according to The New York Times. A May survey from the Lowy Institute found that nearly three-quarters of Australian respondents believe “the benefits of taking further action on climate change will outweigh the costs,” while a majority (60%) said the country is doing too little.

“Given Australia is custodian of 16% of the world’s coral reefs, they need to take a much more prominent role in reducing emissions, and this includes a much stronger commitment to phase out thermal coal,” Pratchett adds. “A lot rests on the commitments arising from COP26, including the global fate of coral reefs.”

While the future of the Great Barrier Reef — and reefs around the world, for that matter — could look “really bleak” depending on how countries respond to climate change in the coming years, Harrison says, he insists that giving up is not an option.

“We all feel some form of ecological grief when we swim over a dead reef that was formerly spectacular and beautiful,” he says. “But we can’t afford to just take too long to reflect on that. We have to continue to find ways of solving this really wicked problem. … Just because it’s tough in conservation, it just means we’ve gotta get tougher.”

Marsden agrees, and says when she’s asked if her job is depressing, she responds that it isn’t because she’s surrounded by “remarkable people” that are doing the work.

“The best way to stop feeling depressed about climate change,” she adds, “is to lean into it.”

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How Australia Is Trying to Save Coral Reefs From Climate Change originally appeared on

Clarification 11/09/21: This article has been updated to note that the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program is a government program.

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