Fears fade on Barrier Reef bleaching disaster

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The Great Barrier Reef is far more resilient to rising water temperatures than scientists feared, with less than 1 per cent of its coral affected by bleaching after the hot summer.

Scientists had predicted that as much as 60 per cent of the reef’s coral might suffer bleaching, which occurs when warm temperatures rob the living coral of nutrition.

But professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, from the University of Queensland’s Centre for Marine Studies, said yesterday that samples he had collected from the various parts of the reef showed the fears were unfounded.

Professor Hoegh-Guldberg’s survey showed coral north of the Keppel Islands near Rockhampton had escaped bleaching, and less than 1 per cent of the outer reef had been affected.

“I was surprised about the fact that we had some bleaching within the coastal regions, but it wasn’t as bad as we’d seen in the Keppel Islands (previously),” he told ABC TV.

“Probably about 1000sqkm of reef has experienced moderate to severe bleaching but, given the size of the Great Barrier Reef, this is quite a minimal impact.”

In January, the professor’s team at the University of Queensland had initially been concerned that the 2005-06 summer could be a repeat of 2001-02, when more than half the reef was bleached and between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of the coral died.

The concern had arisen after above-average sea temperatures had been recorded through the summer months.

“This year we are worried because we have higher (temperature) anomalies which may result in greater damage,” Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said at the time.

But their concerns proved unfounded, confirming the views last month of scientist Peter Ridd, who said the Great Barrier Reef was one of the world’s most resilient ecosystems.

“The only place that’s probably better is Antarctica,” said Dr Ridd, from Townsville’s James Cook University.

A spokesman for conservation organisation WWF, Richard Leck, still offered a warning if ocean temperatures rose.

“By 2050, unless we build the resistance of the reef, we will be faced with a pretty diminished resource,” Mr Leck said.

Any damage to the reef would hurt the economies of Queensland and Australia.

The reef is worth $5.8 billion to the national economy, employs more than 60,000 people and is visited by more than two million tourists each year.

Scientists are urging state and federal governments to reduce greenhouse emissions to avoid the bleaching that hit east Africa in 1998, when 50 per cent of its reefs were lost.

Source: The Australian