Climate Change and the End of Australia

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Exactly how the reef will decline, and what can be done about it, is the subject of much of the work at the Heron Island Research Center. The island is a narrow spit of land on the southern end of the reef, just large enough for a slightly dilapidated resort on one end and a collection of dormlike sleeping quarters and labs at the other. The station is run by the University of Queensland, and during the summer, it's overrun by scientists studying everything from shearwater mating habits to the effects of rising ocean acidity on the navigational abilities of clown fish.

Corals are strange animals. Each one is made up of flower-shaped polyps that build their skeletons on the outside, allowing tiny algae to live inside and provide energy to the coral via photosynthesis. The coral grows by excreting calcium carbonate, which provides the skeleton for new polyps. The reef itself is nothing more than a collection of millions of these polyps, and the brilliant colors of the corals are the manifestation of the different types of algae that live within them. This symbiotic relationship between the coral and algae is fragile. If the coral is exposed to bright light at the same time as high temperatures, it can cause the algae to produce toxic levels of oxygen. To survive, the coral expel the toxic algae, which leaves them pale and sick – a condition marine scientists call "bleaching." In most cases, the coral never recovers.

As the Earth heats up, bleaching has become increasingly common at reefs around the world. A mass bleaching in 1998 killed 90 percent of the corals in the Indian Ocean. Last year, reefs bleached throughout the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean and off the coasts of Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Unless we find a way to cool the planet, 95 percent of the reefs on the planet, including the Great Barrier Reef, are expected to be subject to severe bleaching by 2050.

In the long run, ocean acidification is an even bigger threat to the reef than warming seas. Acidification, which occurs as the ocean breaks down the CO2 in the atmosphere into carbonic acid, inhibits the ability of corals to create their calcium-carbonate skeletons. Kline participated in a study that showed a 40 percent decline in calcification rates of certain corals on the Great Barrier Reef in the past 30 years. By the end of the century, if nothing changes, the world's oceans are expected to be 150 percent more acidic than they were before the Industrial Revolution – creating a loss of corals that will be irreversible. "The potential consequences of such acidification are nothing less than catastrophic," says Veron. "The ocean is going to suck up CO2, and there is not much we can do about it – other than get serious about cutting the amount of CO2 we dump into the atmosphere."

Beyond the reef, acidification also damages shell-creating creatures throughout the ocean, from crabs and oysters to the billions of tiny pteropods that form a key part of the marine food chain. Recent research has shown that even organisms that don't have shells, such as krill, have a difficult time surviving in more acidic waters. "One possible consequence of ocean acidification is the collapse of the food chain," says Donna Roberts, a marine biologist who heads the country's research on ocean acidification. "If the krill vanish, will the whales be able to find other food sources? What about all the fish that depend on fish that eat pteropods – can they adapt? It is not at all clear how the ocean food chain will react if you pull out the organisms at the bottom."

One likely scenario: the triumph of the jellyfish. Since jellyfish don't build shells, a world with more acidic seas may give them an evolutionary advantage. Roberts says she's already seeing a lot more jellyfish on her research trips. "One of the consequences of burning fossil fuels may be that we're creating an ocean of jellyfish," she says.

I ask Kline about this one day as we walk along the reef at low tide. Reef sharks dart ahead of us, and rays float past in the shallow water like underwater butterflies. "The reef is not going to die overnight," he says, trying to sound optimistic. "The complexity of the ecosystem will decline. It will become full of weedy, opportunistic species – a junkyard reef."

I play devil's advocate. "Some people would say, 'So we lose the Great Barrier Reef. Sad, but so what?' It's not like the human race won't go on."

Kline stops and picks up a sea cucumber – an ugly, slug-shaped animal that is endangered by overfishing. "It's true, the human race could probably survive without the Great Barrier Reef," he says. He mentions the tourist business the reef brings to Australia, the protection it provides against storms along the coast and the value of its creatures to science and medicine. "But for me, it's not that rational," he says, settling the sea cucumber gently back into the water. "It just comes down to the fact that the reef is one of the wonders of the natural world – and we're going to trash it just because we don't want to drive smaller cars or pay a little extra to put solar panels on the roof?"

When the Big Dry ended last September and it finally started raining in the town of Toowoomba, everyone practically fell to their knees in gratitude. "We were hurting real, real bad," says Tom Jenkins, the head of a farming cooperative, who shows me pictures of parched land, cracked and dry. It looks like the Mojave Desert. "Every drop of rainfall seemed like a gift," Jenkins says. "It was like our long nightmare was finally over."

But then the rains kept coming. By late December, the ground was saturated and fields were flooding. The two creeks that ran through town, both of which are usually no more than a trickle in midsummer, overflowed their concrete culverts and spilled into the streets. Water flowed into the foyer of the shopping mall at the center of town. In the countryside, roads flooded out, and hundreds of acres of watermelons – a key crop in the region – were swamped.

And still the rain kept coming. In early January, eight inches of rain fell in five days. Gas stations closed, farmers wrote off an entire season, and the city came to a halt. But incredibly, the rains did not. "I didn't know the sky could hold that much water," says Wayne Reis, who runs a furniture store in the center of town.

The fact that the sky can hold more water is precisely what happens in a warming world. "Global warming is lifting more water vapor into the air, increasing the intensity of torrential downpours," concludes a recent report from Australia's Climate Institute. A two-degree increase in ocean temperatures can boost rainfall by nearly 10 percent. But scientists can't predict where that extra rain will fall, or how far beyond the norm any given weather system might go.

On January 10th, four inches of rain fell on Toowoomba in just a few hours, and by that afternoon, what had been a manageable soaking turned into a catastrophe of such suddenness and force that it defies any attempt to describe it. Within minutes, both creeks in town swelled into a 20-foot-high wall of water. It tore through downtown, sending residents scrambling for higher ground, swamping stores in the mall and floating books in the public library. Office workers took a video of the waters rushing into their parking lot and carrying off their cars, sending them bouncing along the torrent like rubber duckies. The video, viewed some 7 million times on YouTube, became the iconic image of the Toowoomba flood.

Thousands of people, unaware of the sudden danger, were caught in the midst of their daily lives. Donna Rice, a 43-year-old mother of four, was running errands downtown with two of her children – Jordan, 13, and Blake, 10 – when her Mercedes stalled at a busy intersection. "I could see they were in trouble," says Warren McErlean, a truck driver who tried to push Rice's car out of the rising floodwaters. But the water was coming hard and fast, and it knocked him off his feet. Another man, secured by a rope to a lamppost, waded out and managed to grab Blake. By the time he came back, the raging water was flipping the Mercedes over. Rice and Jordan scrambled onto the roof of the car – "I saw the panic in their eyes," says McErlean. The rescuer grabbed them and tried to hold on, but the water was too strong. Rice and Jordan were washed away.

Within a half-hour, the water subsided. An hour later, cars were driving through the debris-strewn intersection. Rice's body was found a mile away behind a flour mill. Jordan's body was found wedged under a fig tree. The floodwaters continued down into the Lockyer Valley, bursting through smaller towns and sweeping buildings, cars and people away. All told, 22 people died from the flash floods.

Eventually, the floodwaters from Toowoomba and the surrounding region all poured into the Brisbane River, which flows through Australia's third-largest city. The river rose 15 feet above normal, breaking its banks and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents. Low-lying areas of downtown Brisbane – "Brisvenice," people were calling it on Twitter – were soon under­water. One blogger, writing by candlelight on his iPad, worried that the city seemed dangerously close to a total breakdown. "Despite the casual stoicism with which most people are addressing the flood – this 'natural disaster' – the sense that food, water, electricity and connectivity is so fragile does give pause for thought," he wrote. "How far away is this form of civilization from something deeply uncivilized?"

A few weeks after the flood, on a Saturday afternoon, religious and civic leaders in Toowoomba gather in front of the town's library to hold a service for the residents killed in the catastrophe. "No one thought anything like this could happen here," Bill Cahill, a member of the regional council, tells me. A stolid, respectable citizen if there ever was one, Cahill believes it is time to get beyond the argument about whether global warming is man-made and start preparing for a new, more extreme climate. "For the past decade, we suffered from terrible drought," he says. "Suddenly, we get some rain, this creek floods" – he points to what is now a muddy trickle in a narrow concrete culvert – "and we are nearly swept away."

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