'Death By a Thousand Cuts': Coal Boom Could Destroy Great Barrier Reef

PHOTO: Aerial of Green Island, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Australia.
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Australia's Great Barrier Reef is rapidly losing its coral, to the point that UNESCO may soon place the natural wonder on its "in danger" list. Climate change is one culprit, but so is the country's booming extraction industry. Environmentalists warn that time is running out for the reef.

The man whose job it should be to protect the Great Barrier Reef is actually afraid of water. The vast ocean, with all the creatures it contains, makes him uneasy. Only once has he visited the reef, the world's largest and most beautiful. Just thinking about the visit makes his skin crawl.

Andrew Powell, 40, the environment minister of the Australian state of Queensland, is a stocky man with a boyish face. Sitting in the neon-lit cafeteria of the parliament building in the state capital Brisbane, he smiles at the memory of his ill-fated expedition to the reef. "I get seasick very quickly," Powell explains, "and I don't do sharks very well."

As he was snorkeling over the reef, he says, a reef shark swam directly beneath him. The horrifying animal was at least twice as big as he is, Powell insists. "My wife says it wasn't more than a meter long," he admits, "but it was enough for me." He swam back to the boat and refused to go back into the water.

The 2,300-kilometer (1,430-mile) Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Queensland in northeastern Australia, is a natural wonder. It is home to a quarter of all species that exist in the world's oceans. In 1981, it became the first ocean region to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

But now UNESCO is threatening to add the Great Barrier Reef to its list of protected sites that are "in danger." The authors of a report presented to the World Heritage Committee in June are "extremely concerned" about the condition of the reef. UNESCO wants the Australian government to demonstrate that it is serious about saving the reef, or else it will be officially classified in 2014.

'Five Minutes to Midnight'

"When a place is recognized as a World Heritage site," says Fanny Douvere, the lead author of the report, "it is both a recognition and a responsibility." UNESCO, she adds, is essentially saying to Australia: "Look, it's five minutes to midnight."

She is far from the only one concerned. Australian scientists have calculated that the Great Barrier Reef, the earth's largest living organism, has lost half of its coral in the last 27 years, and coral death is only accelerating.

One reason is that Australia feels the effects of climate change earlier and more strongly than elsewhere. Not only do rising water temperatures lead to coral bleaching in the summer, but increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also raise ocean acidity, which damages the coral.

But storms and floods also flush mud, pesticides and fertilizers from farmland into the ocean, creating conditions under which a type of starfish that eats coral can thrive. And without healthy coral, fish, crabs, mollusks, sea turtles, manatees, dolphins, skates and sharks also disappear.

Man is also threatening the reef in a very direct way. Australia has the world's largest reserves of uranium, zinc and lead. It also has rich deposits of bauxite, iron ore, copper, gold, manganese and nickel, and no other country in the world has exported as much coal in recent years.

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