Species and ecosystems continue to suffer the consequences of climate disruption caused by humans. Many are paying with their very existence, including the the single largest coral ecosystem on the planet: the Great Barrier Reef.
I've been writing these climate dispatches every month for over three years, and each successive dispatch becomes more difficult to write than the last, as the impacts of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) become increasingly severe.
Species, ecosystems, glaciers, sea ice and humans themselves continue to absorb and pay for this human experiment of industrialization gone horribly awry. Many are paying with their very existence.
Two months ago, I spent some time researching and writing in Australia. I visited the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), where I reveled in the majesty of intact towering coral structures flourishing with marine life. Yet I was also devastated during this visit -- again and again, I happened upon bleached out and silently dead areas of barren coral wasteland, which not long ago teemed with living beings. Roughly 20 percent of the coral on the outer reef were already bleached, and on their way towards death.
While snorkeling on the reef during the last afternoon I was there, the signal from the boat to return was given. It was late afternoon, and time to head back to land. I took several long deep breaths, supersaturated my lungs with sea air, and dove down 30 feet to the coral. I swam alongside mostly intact coral structures in all their brilliant colors, teeming with fish. Having interviewed and snorkeled with GBR experts all day, I was preparing to break the story of this year's GBR bleaching event. I knew the reef was likely on its way out of existence, stunning as that may seem, given that the GBR is the single largest coral ecosystem on the planet, spanning 1,400 miles and easily visible from space. Coral reefs can rebuild from bleaching events, but typically need 10-15 years between events in order to recover. This was the second mass bleaching event in the last two years, and there was no sign of a let up.
I swam with the coral, taking the scene into my soul, staying down until my lungs burned for air. I swam longer, holding my hands out towards the coral, feeling it, knowing this was most likely to be my farewell to the brilliant corals of the dying Great Barrier Reef.
Swimming up to the surface a deep gasp refilled my lungs. I peeled off my mask and wiped my tears, then began my swim back to the boat.
Several weeks later Eyewitness News in Australia reported on scientists giving the GBR a "terminal prognosis" unless ACD is slowed dramatically. By April, scientists were in shock, realizing that two-thirds of the entire reef was now bleached out. Some of them declared the GBR had reached a "terminal stage," describing the situation as "unprecedented."
Thanks to ACD, Earth has lost approximately half of all its coral reefs in just the last three decades. A quarter of all marine species depend on reefs. Reefs provide the sole source of protein for more than one billion people, and they are now vanishing before our eyes.
Scientists are now speculating that an era of terminal global coral bleaching might have already arrived, decades earlier than previously expected. The recent bleaching events are so severe, there is no analog in the thousands of years of ancient coral cores scientists use to study past bleaching events.
"This isn't something that's going to happen 100 years from now. We're losing them right now," marine biologist Julia Baum of Canada's University of Victoria told the AP. "We're losing them really quickly, much more quickly than I think any of us ever could have imagined."
Meanwhile, the World Meteorological Organization released its annual State of Global Climate report, stating that record-breaking ACD impacts have pushed the planet into "uncharted territory."
"Earth is a planet in upheaval due to human-caused changes in the atmosphere," glaciologist Jeffrey Kargel told The Guardian of the report. "In general, drastically changing conditions do not help civilisation, which thrives on stability."
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