We got a glimpse into past, present and future of the Reef. And it’s not pretty.

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Feature Story - 12 December, 2013
Just 80 km east of Gladstone sits a little-known, idyllic tear drop in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Area, Heron Island. Home to nesting turtles and black noddy birds, it’s also the location of a ground-breaking research facility that shows what could become the future of our Great Barrier Reef.

© Dean Sewell / Greenpeace. 12 December 2013

Heron Island is part of the Capricornia Cays National Park Islands, located in the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Surrounded by white sand beaches and bright turquoise water, it’s hard to believe we were just 80km north east of Gladstone Harbour -- one of the most heavily industrialised port cities in Queensland.

As we walked down Heron Island wharf, we were welcomed by University of Queensland Coral Reef Ecosystems Lab Manager Dr Annamieke Van Den Heuvel. For the last three years, she’s been working on a fascinating experiment to examine the effects of ocean temperatures and acidity levels in water on the health of coral reefs.

Sounds technical, right? But what her research is really showing us is a glimpse of the past, present and future of the reef. Dr Van Den Heuvel uncovered four coral tanks to explain this work to us:

Tank #1 took us back in time more than 100 years. You can clearly see colourful, living coral and hardly any algae.

© Dean Sewell / Greenpeace. 12 December 2013

Tank #2 shows coral in present day sea temperatures and acidity. It’s still in pretty good shape.

© Dean Sewell / Greenpeace. 12 December 2013

Tank #3 shows coral in sea temperatures two degrees higher than current levels. Here you can see that some coral is bleached, however over time this can be reversed and the coral can recover.

© Dean Sewell / Greenpeace. 12 December 2013

Finally, tank #4 shows what coral could look like in sea temperatures four degrees higher than today. The coral is virtually dead. It’s smothered in algae too – a sign that it has little chance to survive. 

© Dean Sewell / Greenpeace. 12 December 2013

This experience shows that four degrees is all it takes and the Reef as we know it won’t be around anymore. If you ever needed evidence of the effect warming sea temperature and climate change could have on our fragile Reef – indeed coral reefs everywhere – surely this is it.

We couldn’t have arrived at this research facility at a more important time. Our government has just approved several new coal export projects to further industrialise our Reef World Heritage Area. Not only could it send thousands of coal ships through the Reef every year, but when the coal is burnt in overseas coal-fired power stations it could send our global climate beyond the point of no return.

Despite the severe threats to the Reef, the abundance of wildlife elsewhere on this beautiful island reminded us why this special place is worth fighting for. This time of year, dozens of turtles come to lay their eggs on the beach. Thousands of black noddy birds nest in the trees. The shallow, sparkling waters are teeming with tropical fish and manta rays.

© Dean Sewell / Greenpeace. 12 December 2013

This important work should be a call to action for our government and Australians everywhere to help save the Reef. If you haven’t already, join the movement by signing our Save the Reef pledge today.

Thanks to Dr Annamieke Van Den Heuvel (Coral Reef Ecosystems Lab Manager) and Liz Perkins (Research Station Manager) for presenting their work to us