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Experts sound alarm over phenomenon affecting world's largest coral reef: 'We're quite concerned'

The Australian government is preparing a UNESCO progress report on its reef conservation plans.

The Australian government is preparing a UNESCO progress report on its reef conservation plans.

Photo Credit: iStock

Experts are raising concerns that back-to-back cyclones crossing Australia's Great Barrier Reef may have damaged parts of the world's largest coral reef system.

The unusual weather pattern has pushed vast quantities of sediment-laden freshwater out from rivers into the reef, potentially harming the delicate ecosystem, reported the Guardian.

What happened?

Cyclone Jasper in December, followed by Cyclone Kirrily in January, delivered torrential rains, causing flood plumes and heavy waves across the Great Barrier Reef.

"We're quite concerned about the potential impacts from the run-off on the reefs in the northern areas," Jane Waterhouse, a water quality scientist at James Cook University, told the Guardian.

Despite hopes that the cyclones would help cool the waters, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority reported that sea surface temperatures have remained at least 1.8°F (1°C) above average. Some freshwater coral bleaching was already observed this summer.

Why are these cyclones concerning?

Coral reefs are highly vulnerable to changes in temperature and water quality. Freshwater can cause corals to bleach, while turbid water starves reefs of light and promotes algae growth, hindering coral health.

"Marine ecosystems do not like freshwater," Waterhouse said.

Strong waves generated by cyclones can also physically damage reefs and tear up seagrass meadows that serve as habitats for dugongs, sea turtles, and fish nurseries. Atmospheric pollution may create a new pattern in which coral bleaching events are interspersed with intense rainfall, leaving little recovery time in between.

Roger Beeden, the chief scientist at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, cautioned, "This summer is not over in terms of the pressures that are there." The cumulative impacts are concerning for the reef's ability to grow and reproduce.

What's being done about the reef damage?

Initial monitoring suggests that the cyclone impacts on corals may not have been as severe as feared, with only isolated bleaching reports so far. However, forecasts indicate that warm conditions will persist over the next couple of months.

The Australian government is preparing a UNESCO progress report on its reef conservation plans, including water quality improvements and climate targets aligned with limiting rising global temperatures to 2.7°F (1.5°C).

"If Queensland can make those commitments, then surely as a nation we can meet that," said Richard Leck from WWF Australia.

On a personal level, we can protect coral reefs through sustainable lifestyle choices that reduce our carbon footprint. Small actions like saving energy, eating more plant-based meals, and choosing reef-safe products make a significant difference.

By uniting in our efforts, we can help ensure a vibrant future for the Great Barrier Reef and the incredible biodiversity it supports.

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