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By Amy Edwards 29 April 2020 5 min read

Mass coral bleaching  continues to be a major stress on coral on the Great Barrier Reef. Image: Chris Jones

As media headlines continue to discuss climate change and its toll on national treasures such as the Great Barrier Reef, Australians are looking for solutions.

Around 85 percent of Australians believe more should be done to save the Reef, and now, the best scientific minds are applying novel interventions to help the Reef fight and adapt to climate change.

This month, the Federal Government launched the research and development (R&D) phase of its world-leading Reef Restoration and Adaptation science Program (RRAP). The program[Link will open in a new window] aims to help preserve and restore the Reef in the face of rising ocean temperatures and coral bleaching.

An initial $150 million will be invested to test and apply novel interventions such as ways to shade and cool large areas of the Reef at risk of bleaching.

RRAP is being progressed by an impressive partnership of Reef know-how that includes the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), CSIRO, Great Barrier Reef Foundation, James Cook University, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, The University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology, Southern Cross University and others.

Buying time to fight climate change

Climate change is the most significant threat to the Reef and global emissions reduction remains the most important action to minimise its impact. However, with average global temperatures already 1°C above pre-industrial levels, emissions reduction is no longer enough to guarantee survival of the Reef as we know it.

CSIRO Great Barrier Reef Coordinator Dr Christian Roth said banking on the Reef recovering naturally is no longer sufficient.

“We need to buy the Reef sufficient time until we reduce global greenhouse gas emissions even more,” he said.

“That’s why we need novel interventions like those outlined in RRAP. Major investment in research and development is needed now to ensure the required technology exists and has regulatory and social approval for use within the next decade.”

Tourists enjoying the Reef near Port Douglas. Image: Matt Curnock

RRAP: Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program

An initial $6 million RRAP feasibility study found successful intervention was possible and could double the likelihood of sustaining the Reef in good condition by 2050.The results of the two-year study, released on April 16, identified 43 out of 160 methods that were worthy of additional research and development as possible future options and thus the $150 million in government funding.They included:

  • Examining ways to collect and freeze coral larvae for use in year-round coral seeding
  • seeding reefs with corals that are more resilient to heat to help coral reefs to evolve and adapt to the changing environment
  • developing technologies that increase the survival rate of coral larvae and that can produce and deploy large quantities of more resilient coral larvae
  • an ambitious concept to shade and cool large areas of reef at risk of bleaching by spraying microscopic saltwater droplets into clouds to make them more reflective of sunlight
  • investigating methods to physically stabilise damaged reefs, after cyclone and bleaching events, to facilitate faster recovery.

A group of RRAP report[Link will open in a new window] authors considered how effective the novel interventions would be in current conditions, and moderate and severe climate change scenarios.

And that’s where modelling came in.

Modelling will help us prepare for today and tomorrow

For a complex ecosystem like the Great Barrier Reef, which is half the size of Texas and faces global and local stressors, the demand on models to identify effective management solutions and their values and risks is growing.

CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere’s Dr Scott Condie was part of the panel of experts who examined RRAP interventions to improve the outlook for coral condition under climate change. These coral-focused interventions included rubble stabilisation, reef-wide cooling and shading and assisted thermal adaptation of corals.

“Our role was to see how management interventions could be implemented in a potentially cost-effective way over an ecosystem the size of the Great Barrier Reef,” said Dr Condie.

The experts used a suite of models, including climate models, specialised water quality models such as eReefs and eco system models such as CoCoNet.

The eReefs project creates an integrated operational system of critical data sources, forecasting and hindcasting models, and visualisation and reporting tools which span the paddock-to-ocean. CoCoNet represents every individual reef on the Reef (3753 reefs) and considers cumulative pressures on coral such as tropical cyclones, coral bleaching, crown-of-thorns starfish (CoTS) as well as the connection between the different reefs.

“In many ways we know a lot about the Reef. There’s a lot of scientists observing what’s happening on a day to day basis. But you need somewhere where all these observations can come together,” Dr Condie said.

“The only way to do this is with modelling that takes into account what has happened historically and what may happen in the future.”

A pink anemone fish in a magnificent anemone, at Steve's Bommie near Cairns. 1625 species of bony fish call the Reef home. Image: Matt Curnock.

Australians show their support

Protecting this Australian icon from climate change has never been so important. According to a 2018 RRAP survey[Link will open in a new window] of a representative sample of more than 3000 Australians, 71 percent indicated they were generally supportive of the idea of undertaking large-scale restoration activities to help restore and protect the Reef.

The survey aimed to gauge public sentiment towards reef restoration and some of the potential new methods being investigated. Importantly it highlighted that communities expressed a need for scientists to be more cautious about the use of some technologies than others.

“Unsurprisingly, more conservative restoration approaches such as stabilising the rubble created by dead corals to speed regeneration, and pest control, were the most supported,” said RRAP Program Director and AIMS Executive Director Strategic Development David Mead.

“Newer concepts such as cloud brightening - spraying salt particles from sea water into cloud cover over reefs at risk of bleaching to increase the amount of sunlight they deflect back into space - and genetically engineering heat-resistant corals were seen as more risky.”

The RRAP research and development program is the world’s largest effort to help a significant ecosystem survive climate change. It’s ambitious and naturally it requires some quantified risk. But we are not in this alone. Coral bleaching is a global issue and, if successful, reef restoration technology could be shared for use in other coral reefs worldwide.

The environmental, social and economic benefits for Australia and the world are likely to be enormous.

Dive deeper into our Great Barrier Reef research here[Link will open in a new window].

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