CSIRO to step up Great Barrier Reef water testing for next three years

CSIRO scientists will take water samples along the entire Great Barrier Reef for the next three years to give the Great Barrier Reef a daily “blood test” after severe coral bleaching early in 2016.

A partnership between the CSIRO, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and Rio Tinto, has secured a mobile laboratory on a bauxite tanker which sails the 2300 kilometres from Weipa in the Gulf of Carpentaria to the alumina plant in Gladstone. It is the first time ongoing chemical data of Great Barrier Reef waters will be collected over a long, continuous time frame and be made publicly available.

An earlier sporadic trial stopped in 2015, but a new $1 million grant has re-ignited the research.

Along the 10-day journey, CSIRO research scientists will take continual chemical analyses of the water looking for patterns in the water’s acid balance, dissolved oxygen, water temperature and turbidity as the reef recovers from severe coral bleaching in its northern regions.

The sampling is done on Rio Tinto’s bauxite carrier, Wakmatha, which travels between Weipa and Gladsone, but started after most of the coral bleaching earlier in 2016. It is researching the ongoing impact of ocean acidification on the Great Barrier Reef waters, where carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean waters.

Absorbing the carbon dioxide is slowly reducing the pH balance of the ocean and data collection is beginning to test the impact on the Great Barrier Reef’s marine ecology, CSIRO research scientist Dr Bronte Tilbrook said.

“By monitoring the change in water temperature it is like a blood test,” he said.

“You are getting indicators of what is happening in that system. And the benefit is it provides data for helping to understand how resilient part of the reef might be and how well it might recover and how well it might adapt to change.”

Dr Tilbrook said the project was designed to give a wider cross-section of data to researchers to stop “emotive” reports from looking at one reef system, or a narrow cross-section of the reef.

Dr Tilbrook said ocean acidification remained a major problem for the reef, because about one-third of the carbon dioxide produced by humans – by cars, energy production, construction and agriculture – is absorbed by oceans and rivers.

“Well since pre-industrial times, the acidity levels in oceans have increased by 30 per cent offshore,” Dr Tilbroook said.

“And that water sweeps onto the Reef. The conditions are not getting any better,” he said.

Dr Tilbrook said corals will still grow.

“But their growth is likely to slow as time goes on and CO2 keeps getting emitted into the atmosphere and a lot of that gets absorbed into the ocean and causes acidification.

“And the problem could get potentially worse.

“But have they reached a tipping point? We don’t really know just yet.”

Dr Tilbrook said coral bleaching – triggered by warmer ocean temperatures – was one “acute, but short-term” stressor on the Great Barrier Reef.

“It comes and goes and then conditions can revert back to what it was like with the lower temperatures,” he said.

“But there is also floods, bringing water onto inshore reefs and nutrients flowing down rivers.

“All those stresses add together and we need to really understand how big they are at the minute and how they interact.”

He said ocean acidification could have a major impact on the health of the Great Barrier Reef over a long period of time.

“This could have a significant impact on the overall health of the Great Barrier Reef by reducing coral growth and weakening reef ecosystems, so this monitoring program is providing invaluable data for the long term efforts to preserve the Reef.”

He said the data that was being gathered should be used as the background to scientific commentary on the health of the Great Barrier Reef.

“The reef is under threat, there is no doubt about that,” he said.

“But I think we need the data to say how good it is, or how bad it is.

“Because people get so emotional about it, and that is understandable.

“But quite often that (the data) is the missing part of this issue.”

“But as far as ocean acidification goes, conditions are not going to get better as long as  C02 emissions go up as rapidly as they are.”

The Great Barrier Reef Foundation has raised almost $25 million from philanthropists for Great Barrier Reef research.

Tony Moore, Brisbane Times, 8 September 2016. Article.

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