300 Miles of Great Barrier Reef Threatened by Muddy Runoff From Queensland Floods
Muddy water from historic flooding in Queensland, Australia is now flowing out of rivers into the sea, threatening even the outer shelves of the Great Barrier Reef some 60 kilometers (approximately 37.3 miles) from the coast, Australia's ABC News reported Friday.
Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) water quality team leader Dr. Frederieke Kroon told ABC News that the runoff covered "an extraordinarily large area." Researchers said it is likely filled with nitrogen pollution and pesticides, and poses a risk to the health of a reef already damaged by back-to-back coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017.
Floodwaters from recent severe weather in north #Queensland are entering the #GreatBarrierReef lagoon. The Burdekin… https://t.co/UzEexIOaH1— Australian Institute of Marine Science (@Australian Institute of Marine Science)1550200207.0
Researchers told BBC News that up to 600 kilometers (approximately 372.8 miles) of outer edges of the reef could be impacted. The nutrient-rich water poses two main threats to the coral:
1. Reduced Light: The flood plumes encourage the growth of algae, which blocks light from the coral.
"The biggest concern at the moment is this reduced light—if it persists for much longer, in some cases we can actually see a smothering of the system," James Cook University's TropWATER research unit scientist Jane Waterhouse told BBC News.
2. Encouraging Predators: The growth of algae also attracts crown-of-thorns starfish, a major predator of coral, AFP reported. Runoff from agricultural pollution had increased the starfish population even before the floods, which have only made the problem worse.
"This provides a brilliant food source to allow those populations to thrive," Waterhouse told AFP.
These images show the sediment laden waters of the Burdekin River flood plume extending out to Old Reef on the mids… https://t.co/3ZkHrBLdCS— James Cook Uni (@James Cook Uni)1550183811.0
The threat posed by the muddy water has been exacerbated by relatively calm weather.
"Generally a bit of wind and wave action can break the plumes up quite quickly, but we have literally had no wind so they're just sitting there hanging," Kroon told BBC News.
Scientists told AFP that they would not know the full impact the flood plumes have had on the reef until they have completed studying the area over the next few months once the runoff disperses.
The Queensland flooding occurred after some areas saw a year's worth of rainfall in 10 days, BBC News reported. Extreme rainfall events are expected to increase in Australia due to climate change, the country's Bureau of Meteorology's (BOM) State of the Climate 2018 found.
Since coral bleaching is linked to warmer ocean temperatures, the flood runoff could represent another climate-related threat to the iconic reef. However, the cooler flood waters could also potentially protect the reef from marine heatwaves that were forecast for March, according to ABC News.
But Kroon cautioned ABC News against looking too much on the bright side:
"If you want to have a flipside to the story that would be one, yes, but it's still a huge disturbance to the reef [after] the bleaching and the cyclones that we've had over the last couple of years," she said.
"The reef doesn't even really get time to recover from any of these disturbances because it gets hit with something pretty much every year."
Kroon noted that the last flooding event to impact the reef significantly was Cyclone Oswald in 2013, then the first such incident in recent memory.
"At the time, that was unheard of and so to have that happen again not that long afterwards is highly unusual," Kroon told ABC News.
NOAA Forecast: Great Barrier Reef Could Face Third Mass Bleaching Event in 4 Years @abc @noaa #CoralReefs… https://t.co/r8hgcGRvti— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1541574131.0
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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