Barrier Reef may become ‘underwater wasteland’
SYDNEY: A powerful cyclone that smashed into northeastern Australia could have caused further damage to the Great Barrier Reef, turning parts of it into an “underwater wasteland”, scientists warned yesterday.
There are fears for the survival of corals in the central and northern areas of the marine ecosystem that stretches 2,300km off the coast of Queensland, after two consecutive years of mass bleaching from warming sea temperatures.
While storms can bring relief to corals suffering from heat stress, Tropical Cyclone Debbie, which barrelled through the region this week, struck the reef’s southern parts, which have not been seriously impacted by bleaching.
The cyclone was downgraded to a tropical low depression on Wednesday, but was yesterday driving squalls with torrential rain across a 1,200km stretch of the east coast, swelling rivers, causing flash floods and prompting authorities to tell 40,000 people to evacuate.
“It has hit parts of the reef which half-escaped (the mass bleaching) this year.
“It could have done a lot of damage in the corridor that it came through, perhaps over a range of something like 100km, quite a substantive area,” James Cook University marine biologist James Kerry said.
The World Heritage-listed reef is under threat from farming runoff, development, the crown-of-thorns starfish and bleaching.
When destructive Cyclone Yasi struck northeastern Australia in 2011, following major flooding, it badly damaged the reef, degrading water quality and depleting overall cover by 15 per cent.
Ongoing inclement conditions mean the extent of the damage from Debbie is not yet known.
Researchers said the impact of previous severe cyclones suggested destruction could be patchy.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull surveying damaged and flooded areas from aboard a helicopter near Townsville, Queensland, yesterday.