May 2006

The Nation Reviewed

When the wind blows

By Mungo MacCallum

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Every cliché has its day, so here goes: it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

For everyone affected by it, Cyclone Larry was a disaster. Coastal townships south of Cairns were destroyed, crops of bananas and sugar cane flattened, infrastructure uprooted and local economies battered. No lives were lost, but many were ruined.

And, of course, there were indirect consequences as well. Apart from the immediate damage to tourist facilities, the whole tourism industry was set back just as the season was starting to build up. Worried about the state of both the resorts and the environment, hundreds of holiday-makers cancelled or postponed their visits.

Cape York is plugged as the place where the rainforest meets the reef, and although the cyclone’s effect on the forest was minimal – rainforest is, after all, designed to be rained on – there were serious concerns about Queensland’s greatest tourist attraction, the Great Barrier Reef. The reef is promoted in extravagant terms: the world’s largest living creature and the only one visible from space. Hype aside, it is certainly the world’s longest continuous coral reef and, arguably, the best cared for. The idea that Larry and others like him could put this wonderful natural asset (and, not incidentally, gigantic moneymaker) at risk was terrifying.

And it seemed especially unfair that after surviving so many of the threats that man could throw at it – sandmining, oil drilling, nutrient run-off, commercial fishing and souvenir hunting, to name just the most obvious – the reef was now threatened by nature. Clearly the sheer force of the storm must have smashed up the more fragile bits of the reef where it made contact; the question was whether any wider and more permanent harm was done.

Not according to the controlling body, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Science director David Wachenfeld insists that the overwhelming majority of the reef wasn’t affected by Larry at all. “The Great Barrier Reef in particular and coral reefs in general are quite resilient systems, they do tend to bounce back from cyclones,” he announced reassuringly. Well, in his somewhat politicised position he would say that, wouldn’t he? But a less-involved source was even more up-beat. Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland’s Centre for Marine Studies says that far from endangering the reef, Larry actually protected it: Larry was a good wind.

According to the professor, the real problem is not violent events like storm and tempest but something far more insidious: warming. What we see as coral is actually two different organisms. The polyp is the tube-like animal that anchors itself to a firm base, and then algae attach themselves to the polyp; it is only through them that the polyp can feed. The trouble is that the algae are very temperature-sensitive. A rise of less than 2°C is enough to make them drop off their hosts, which in turn kills the polyps: this is the phenomenon known as coral bleaching. In some circumstances the water may cool fast enough for the algae to re-attach before the polyp dies, or alternative algae that can survive at higher temperatures may arrive in time to save the situation, but more often all that is left is the white skeletal growth that ends up on the beaches and in the craft shops.

With reefs all around the world already under stress from marine pollution and rising acid levels (due to the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide), even a short-term rise in water temperature can prove fatal. In the big bleaches of 1998 and 2002 up to one-sixth of the world’s reefs were permanently damaged. In 2002 over 60% of the Great Barrier Reef suffered bleaching and 10% of the coral actually died.

There is little doubt that global warming is making the problem a more pressing and regular one; in each of the last two years, scientists, conservationists and the more serious tourism operators have watched gloomily through the Queensland summer as the sea slowly warmed. But then in March, in the nick of time, the cavalry arrived. A cyclone galloped on to the radar screens.

In 2005 Ingrid to the north, and in 2006 Larry to the south, came across the continental shelf bringing havoc but also relief: enormous quantities of cooler water from the ocean depths were dragged to the surface and spread across vast areas of the reef. The effect was spectacular: algae and corals revived almost overnight. There is no real doubt that climate change, through global warming, presents the greatest challenge to the reef’s survival. Paradoxically, climate change, through an increase in extreme weather events, may also prove its salvation. This conclusion may not bring much immediate comfort to the people of Innisfail, but at least it suggests there is some sort of bright side.

In Queensland, there usually is. Many years ago a group of concerned scientists persuaded the then premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, to take a trip to a threatened area of the reef so he could see the damage his policies of malign neglect were causing. He returned bubbling with enthusiasm. “I don’t know what you’re worried about,” he chortled. “It’s looking beautiful – pristine. Not a spot of rubbish and pure white coral as far as the eye can see.”

Pure white, and also stone dead. The overall situation of the reef may not have improved all that much since then: there are still arguments about the extent to which fishing and tourism should be allowed; passing freighters are a constant threat of oil spill; even mining has not been completely ruled out. But at least now we have learned to tell which way the wind’s blowing.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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