Australia Throws Great Barrier Reef a $300 Million Lifeline, but Will It Cut Emissions?
The Great Barrier Reef is in trouble. The Australian government is trying to buy its crown jewel some time, but is it willing to support what the reef needs most — a reduction in emissions?
A few weeks ago, the world's greatest coral reef suffered its third major bleaching event in five years, the most widespread to date. The frequency and severity of the bleachings have caused some scientists to speculate whether the reef has reached a tipping point of no return.
On Thursday, Minister of the Environment Susan Ley announced the launch of the research and development (R&D) phase of the government's Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP) to combat the declines the reef is experiencing.
Following a two-year feasibility study led by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), a list of 160 potential fixes was whittled down to 43 promising concepts that will be funded for further investigation.
AIMS Chief Executive Paul Hardisty described how the R&D phase will "provide the scientific basis to help the reef survive in the coming decades," noted a media statement. The program is designed to uncover adaptations for the reef that are cost-effective, safe, and acceptable to the public and regulators, Hardisty said.
But how effective can an adaptation and resilience program really be against the backdrop of ever-increasing global emissions and ocean temperatures?
The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef ecosystem. Stretching 2,300 km along Australia's northeast coastline, this complex of shallow water reefs and islands is home to thousands of species of fish, invertebrates, algae, reptiles, birds and algae. This image, taken by the VIIRS sensor on the Suomi NPP satellite on Aug.19, 2017 uses the high resolution SVI 3, 2, and 1 bands, commonly referred to as "natural color" RGB. NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS)
The feasibility study found that global warming might kill the entire Great Barrier Reef by as early as 2050, reported Hack.
Most tropical coral reefs will disappear even if heating can be limited to 1.5°C, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said, reported The Guardian. Reefs will still be "at very high risk" at 1.2°C warming, and the globe is already over 1°C since the Industrial Revolution, The Guardian explained.
The feasibility report concluded, "We are facing the very real prospect that, within a generation and without concerted action to reduce emissions and help drive adaptation and faster recovery from damage, the Great Barrier Reef as we have known it will cease to exist," reported Hack.
To avoid this, the scientists are calling for an intervention at a scale never seen before, and they're trying to find adaptation solutions before climate change destroys what remains of the reef, The Guardian reported.
Daniel Harrison, a biological oceanographer at Southern Cross University, led one of the 43 experimental trials being funded for further research.
"This is a race against time," he said to The Guardian. "If we can go really hard on emissions and meet or beat the Paris [climate] targets, then these interventions have the potential to help get the reef to a sustainable future – but only under that very aggressive emissions reduction scenario."
Therein lies one of the historically sticky points for environmentalists when it comes to Australia's "hypocritical" environmental protection efforts contrasted against its broader, coal-friendly environmental policies, reported Fortune.
In 2017, Greenpeace called the government's "coal crush" the real threat to the Great Barrier Reef because it "[ignored] the simple reality of climate change." In 2018, Australia invested $379 million into saving the reef. The government concurrently promoted the building of new coal mines, which fuel global warming that harms the reef.
In 2019, Australia continued its "love affair with fossil fuels," setting new record highs for emissions pollution. That same year, the marine park authority approved plans to dump one million tonnes (approximately 1.1 million U.S. tons) of sludge onto the reef.
As recently as December 2019, coal advocate and current Prime Minister Scott Morrison received backlash for vacationing in Hawaii and seeming "remarkably indifferent" while bush fires devastated the country, reported The Washington Post. The fires were exacerbated by climate change and the spike in greenhouse gases caused by the burning of fossil fuels, explained The Washington Post.
In response, Morrison said, "Our emissions reductions policies will both protect our environment and seek to reduce the risks and hazards we are seeing today," reported The Washington Post.
The realities of climate change and coral bleaching have led even the scientists spearheading this latest effort to save the reef to characterize the RRAP as a long shot, reported Hack.
AIMS principal research scientist Ken Anthony told The Guardian, "It's a bit like the Apollo 11 mission. It really is on that scale."
Hardisty also metaphorically compared the new program to the "high-risk but successful U.S. mission to put a man on the moon before the end of the '60s," reported Hack. He agreed that success might seem like a "moonshot," given the current situation on the reef and global emissions, but optimistically added, "If we work hard and are smart and are courageous we can turn this around," reported Hack.
The R&D phase will be funded by the Australian government and a consortium of universities and marine studies institutes. The government committed $150 million for the next five years, and that figure could jump to $300 million with promised donations from the private sector and in-kind investments from R&D providers, noted a government press release.
The feasibility study found that the efforts could result in a net benefit to Australia of tens of billions of dollars, much greater than the initial investment, the investment case said.
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The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.
"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."
The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.
They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.
They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.
But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.
"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.
What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.
It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.
To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.
First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.
Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.
University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.
"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."
Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.
"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.
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