The most pristine part of the Great Barrier Reef has been “fried” in the worst coral bleaching event on record, a reef expert says.
Professor Terry Hughes, the convenor of the National Coral Bleaching Taskforce, says the federal government has failed to link its decisions – including scrapping a price on carbon and support for coal mining – to reef health.
He fears major bleaching events, driven by climate change, are starting to occur more frequently than the 10 years it takes the reef to recover.
Prof Hughes has just returned from aerial surveys that show devastating levels of bleaching in the northern part of the reef, from Cairns to the top of Cape York and beyond.
Of 520 reefs surveyed between Cairns and Papua New Guinea in recent days, just four appeared to be unaffected.
And 95 per cent of those reefs have been ranked in the two most severe categories of bleaching, meaning at least 30 per cent of their coral is affected, and in a vast number of cases more than 60 per cent.
The damage in the northern part of the reef far surpasses the previous worst bleaching in 2002, when 18 per cent of reefs were ranked in the two most severe categories.
“The north has fried,” Prof Hughes told AAP on Tuesday. “This is an ongoing, slow-motion train wreck.”
UNESCO last year decided not to list the World Heritage-listed reef as “in danger”, despite concerns over mining-related port developments and water quality.
In arguing against the listing, Australia pointed to the health of northern reefs – the very ones now hit by unprecedented bleaching.
“I hope these scientific findings will convince the commonwealth government to link its greenhouse gas policies to the vulnerability of the reef to climate change,” Prof Hughes said.
Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who toured bleached parts of the reef earlier this month, says damage in the northern section is the worst on record.
But he says the rest of the marine park area has seen only minor or moderate bleaching, and the government has ramped up surveying and research efforts in the face of the latest event.
Green groups have again rounded on Mr Hunt for approving Adani’s planned Carmichael coalmine in Queensland’s Galilee basin – the coal will be burnt in India to service the country’s electricity needs.
“The federal and Queensland environment ministers need to get off their hands and stop paving the way for Carmichael … at a time when the mining and burning of coal is driving climate change, warming our waters and bleaching our reef,” Greenpeace’s Shani Tager said.
State Mines Minister Anthony Lynham has said Queensland needs the economic benefits that will flow from the $16.5 billion mine.
On Tuesday, he said Queensland could have a healthy reef and a future in coal, noting most coal exports are metallurgical coal that’s not burnt but used to produce steel.
He did not mention the Carmichael mine, which also requires a massive upgrade of the Abbot Point coal terminal south of Townsville.