The science of change

Fri 28 May

The science of change

We all know (and most of us admit), that the burning of coal and other fossil fuels contributes to the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which in turn contributes to climate change.


But the burning question (pardon the pun) is just what effect will this have on our spectacular, but endangered Great Barrier Reef?   That’s just what a team of half a dozen scientists are trying to discover on a coral atoll a couple of hours from Gladstone Harbour.


The project team, led by David Kline, a young scientist from the University of Queensland's Global Change Institute, will test what effect rising acid levels in our ocean, a bi-product of rising atmospheric carbon levels, will have on coral and other organisms that make up the ecology of the reef.


To cut a long story short, the scientists have attached four narrow and transparent chambers to the reef that allow small fish and the natural current to flow through them. The sea water is flushed with carbon dioxide to lower the pH and therefore make the water more acidic.  The chambers are hooked up to some monitors of such complexity I couldn’t explain how they work if I wanted to.


There is much interest in the results of these tests as they are the first of their kind to be done in a natural environment.  The acidification of our oceans is one of the most urgent issues we face.  Why?   Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, the director of the Global Change Institute and head of the Australian Research Council-funded research team explains ''If these organisms can't compensate for that (the rising acid levels)…reef growth will slow until the reef superstructure begins to crumble.  If coral populations disappear you put at risk about a million or so species, and all of the beautiful benefits to humans such as fisheries, coastal protection, tourist industries and so on.''


And don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a problem for future generations to solve.


''Ocean acidification is already occurring and will get worse,'' said Professor Jelle Bijma, lead author of the European Science Foundation document. Combined with warming, ''we are in double trouble. The combination of the two may be the most critical environmental and economic challenge of the century''.


Dr Hoegh-Guldberg went on to say ''Something as complex and broad a feature as coral reefs is now sickening and dying …This is really giving us a warning sign that maybe the whole basis of our dependence on this planet, the biological and ecological services, will change.''