IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

C2.2.3 Climate change and the Great Barrier Reef (Chapter 11, Box 11.3)

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is the world’s largest continuous reef system (2,100 km long) and is a critical storehouse of Australian marine biodiversity and a breeding ground for seabirds and other marine vertebrates such as the humpback whale. Tourism associated with the GBR generated over US$4.48 billion in the 12-month period 2004/5 and provided employment for about 63,000 full-time equivalent persons (Access Economics, 2005). The two greatest threats from climate change to the GBR are (i) rising sea temperatures, which are almost certain to increase the frequency and intensity of mass coral bleaching events, and (ii) ocean acidification, which is likely to reduce the calcifying ability of key organisms such as corals. Other factors, such as droughts and more intense storms, are likely to influence reefs through physical damage and extended flood plumes (Puotinen, 2006).

Sea temperatures on the GBR have warmed by about 0.4°C over the past century (Lough, 2000). Temperatures currently typical of the northern tip of the GBR are very likely to extend to its southern end by 2040 to 2050 (SRES scenarios A1, A2) and 2070 to 2090 (SRES scenarios B1, B2) (Done et al., 2003). Temperatures only 1°C above the long-term summer maxima already cause mass coral bleaching (loss of symbiotic algae). Corals may recover but will die under high or prolonged temperatures (2 to 3°C above long-term maxima for at least 4 weeks). The GBR has experienced eight mass bleaching events since 1979 (1980, 1982, 1987, 1992, 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006); there are no records of events prior to 1979 (Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999). The most widespread and intense events occurred in the summers of 1998 and 2002, with about 42% and 54% of reefs affected, respectively (Done et al., 2003; Berkelmans et al., 2004). Mortality was distributed patchily, with the greatest effects on near-shore reefs, possibly exacerbated by osmotic stress caused by floodwaters in some areas (Berkelmans and Oliver, 1999). The 2002 event was followed by localised outbreaks of coral disease, with incidence of some disease-like syndromes increasing by as much as 500% over the past decade at a few sites (Willis et al., 2004). While the impacts of coral disease on the GBR are currently minor, experiences in other parts of the world suggest that disease has the potential to be a threat to GBR reefs. Effects from thermal stress are likely to be exacerbated under future scenarios by the gradual acidification of the world’s oceans, which have absorbed about 30% of the excess CO2 released to the atmosphere (Orr et al., 2005; Raven et al., 2005). Calcification declines with decreasing carbonate ion concentrations, becoming zero at carbonate ion concentrations of approximately 200 µmol/kg (Langdon et al., 2000; Langdon, 2002). These occur at atmospheric CO2 concentrations of approximately 500 ppm. Reduced growth due to acidic conditions is very likely to hinder reef recovery after bleaching events and will reduce the resilience of reefs to other stressors (e.g., sediment, eutrophication).

Even under a moderate warming scenario (A1T, 2°C by 2100), corals on the GBR are very likely to be exposed to regular summer temperatures that exceed the thermal thresholds observed over the past 20 years (Done et al., 2003). Annual bleaching is projected under the A1FI scenario by 2030, and under A1T by 2050 (Done et al., 2003; Wooldridge et al., 2005). Given that the recovery time from a severe bleaching-induced mortality event is at least 10 years (and may exceed 50 years for full recovery), these models suggest that reefs are likely to be dominated by non-coral organisms such as macroalgae by 2050 (Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999; Done et al., 2003). Substantial impacts on biodiversity, fishing and tourism are likely. Maintenance of hard coral cover on the GBR will require corals to increase their upper thermal tolerance limits at the same pace as the change in sea temperatures driven by climate change, i.e., about 0.1-0.5°C/decade (Donner et al., 2005). There is currently little evidence that corals have the capacity for such rapid genetic change; most of the evidence is to the contrary (Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999, 2004). Given that recovery from mortality can be potentially enhanced by reducing local stresses (water quality, fishing pressure), management initiatives such as the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan and the Representative Areas Programme (which expanded totally protected areas on the GBR from 4.6% to over 33%) represent planned adaptation options to enhance the ability of coral reefs to endure the rising pressure from rapid climate change.