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Byron Shire
December 6, 2022

Planet Watch: Drowning not waving – tales from a dying ocean

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This article is made possible by the support of Byron Eco Park Holdings.

Dr Willow Hallgren

As human activity contributes more and more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, such as CO2 and methane, this is having a major impact on the world’s oceans. The oceans have taken up around 40 per cent of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans since 1750 – the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Absorbing so much CO2 is making seawater increasingly more acidic, and this will, increasingly, cause the shells and skeletons of some marine creatures, including corals, plankton and shellfish, to dissolve. The oceans have also absorbed about 90 per cent of the warming caused by human carbon emissions since pre-industrial times.

This warming and acidification of the oceans is having profound impacts on both its physical structure and the myriad lifeforms who live in it and depend on it, including humans. It is also having major impacts on Australian fisheries, aquaculture and tourism.

Iceberg with a hole near Sanderson Hope south of Greenland in 2007. Wikipedia.

Threat to coastal properties

The oceans are getting warmer and expanding, causing sea-level rise (along with land-based ice sheets melting). Coupled with more severe storms, this means that storm surges are increasingly inundating low-lying coastal areas, leading to disruptive and expensive flooding events. Extreme sea levels have occurred three times more frequently in the second-half of the 20th century than the first-half. Moreover, the rate of sea-level rise is increasing, and is predicted to rise at a considerably faster rate during the 21st century than it did during the 20th century.

Currently, there are hundreds of beaches and coastal communities around Australia that are at risk from coastal erosion. A few more decades of sea-level rise, and this number could climb into the thousands. The global average sea-level is predicted to rise by 45 to 82cm (above levels seen in the late 20th century) in the next 70 years – if we continue emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases. Of course, if any of the land-based ice sheets continue to melt unabated, the sea-level rises could be much larger, threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions of people living around the world’s coastlines. Both the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets are melting at record rates – and accelerating!

Needless to say, beach-front or low-lying waterfront property is probably not a good long-term investment. The burgeoning coastal development around Australia will undoubtedly face increasing risk due to storm surges and extreme water levels as greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb.

The back to back massive coral bleaching events of 2016 and 2017 devastated nearly half of the Great Barrier Reef.

See the Great Barrier Reef before it’s gone

As communities around Australia are reeling from the unimaginably devastating ecological catastrophe of an unprecedented bushfire season, there is another ecological catastrophe unfolding, albeit at a slower rate. In the seas that gird our bushfire-burnt country an ecosystem with immense biodiversity and beauty – the Amazon rainforest of the ocean; the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) – is dying. Its death is both predictable and inexorable if the continued rise in global CO2 emissions is not halted.

Australians have now realised that the 2008 predictions of climate-change-induced severe bushfires by 2020, in the Garnaut Climate Change Review should have been listened to and acted upon. The devastating results are now all around us and have been choking us in both the countryside and the cities for months.

What Australian’s must also recognise is that ignoring the warnings about climate change and the GBR will have massive and possibly irreversible consequences. Between 1985 and 2012 there was a 50 per cent decline in coral cover due to human influences, and this occurred before the back-to-back massive coral bleaching events of 2016 and 2017, which devastated nearly half of the Great Barrier Reef. In 2019, a scientific study found an 89 per cent decline in the number of new corals settling on the Great Barrier Reef.

We must realise that the future of the GBR is now dependent on how quickly greenhouse gas emissions come down. If we keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, the reef will survive, but in a degraded state, with less coral cover and less biodiversity. However, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise on their current trajectory, then it’s ‘game over’ and the reef will die completely, according to Professor Terry Hughes, the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies..

The times they are a’changing

So what can we do to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change on the oceans? First of all, vote for a party that has strong policies on emissions reduction – not for parties who try to use sneaky carbon accounting tricks to get away with doing as little as possible to address the root cause of climate change.

In 2018, climate change scientists agreed that ‘limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society… Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050’.

Fire fighters at the Wardell fire front on November 8, 2019. Photo Ewan Willis.

Australia failing

Needless to say, Australia is not on-track to even come close to this level of emission reductions, yet this is what the science says we must do to avoid more frequent climate catastrophes, such as the 2019/2020 bushfires, or mass coral bleaching events. This is the same science that predicted the recent horror bushfire season only 12 years ago.

Rethinking where we live

Beach nourishment may be able to extend the habitability of eroding coastlines, but not forever. It’s really time we start to rethink human settlements in low-lying areas – we should be aiming for an organised, well-planned retreat. This must be accompanied by the replanting of coastal ecosystems, such as mangroves and seagrasses, to buffer coastlines from stronger storms and to preserve as much coastal marine-life as possible. Ultimately, the uninsurability of beachside properties might be the deciding factor on future coastal developments and a planned retreat away from low-lying coastlines (the market can be an efficient tool if we allow it to be – hello carbon tax!).

Plenty of heating to come

Unfortunately, due to past emissions, there is already considerable heating of the planet in the pipeline. It’s not going to be enough to simply stop emitting greenhouse gases. We need to sequester as much CO2 as we can, in order to stabilise the climate as much as possible and limit future impacts. Although ecologically risky, many marine geoengineering mechanisms have been proposed, such as fertilising the ocean with iron filings or other nutrients to stimulate phytoplankton growth, and growing kelp forests – which grow very quickly and absorb huge amounts of CO2.

Other ways the oceans might help us fix the problems we have created involve tapping into their enormous potential for renewable energy in the form of wave and tidal energy, and offshore wind farms. Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, and diversifying the types of renewable energy we can draw on are our best approach to securing our long term, sustainable, relatively inexpensive energy future.

Further reading







Dr Willow Hallgren. Photo supplied.


Dr Willow Hallgren is an earth-system scientist who studies the impact of climate change on ecosystems and biodiversity, the feedbacks between vegetation and the climate, and how policy can influence climate change, by changing how we use the land.

Willow has previously worked as a climate and biodiversity scientist in government, industry, and academic roles in both Australia and the USA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She was also previously the Science editor of Monash University’s student newspaper Lot’s Wife.

She is a city escapee of many years now and is currently hiding out among the hill tribes of the beautiful Tweed Valley.

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  1. One would have thought that “Conservative” people would have been conservative of nature and conserving of nature’s dependency on the climate which was and still is crucial to its existence and ongoing survival.

    But no, instead, “Conservative” people, vote for governments that typically strive to do the complete opposite.

    By voting to destroy life, rather than protect, nurture and help it to flourish, “Conservative” people have now earned the distinction of being called modern day Barbarism …

    How we progressively evolve past this, if at all, is most curious indeed..

  2. Dr Hallgren , thanks for the update regarding what
    The future holds for us humans ..
    Those computer models sure have been a
    Unreliable source of predictions to date
    Totally agree the planet is warming no doubt!!
    However Dr since 1880 the earths temperature
    Has risen 0.76 degrees hardly a emergency Dr ?
    you and many other scientists base future
    Sea level rises, planet warming on computer
    Modeling” Why ?

    Dr a couple of Questions.
    Could you please explain where sea level rises
    Are at a emergency phase in Australia?
    Especially in the Byron Shire where our own
    Council has declared a emergency?

    If the planet is warming a such an alarming rate
    And most scientists the ones hooked on government grants are all in agreement
    That fossil fuels are the contributing factors to such Global Warming than why Dr were the
    Temperatures 1.3 to 1.5 warmer in medieval times
    In Europe 2000 years ago what were the contributing factors to such Global Warming
    2000 years ago Dr , no fossil fuels, no huge
    Population’s? Answer please . In layman’s terms

    Not one Scientist in the past 50 years has had
    A global warming prediction come true ?

    And can give you the perfect example Tim Flannery
    Absolutely a waste of hard earned taxpayer’s
    Money wasted on Flannerys predictions
    Embarrassing? Not to Mr Flannery

    is CO2 a pollutant Dr ?

    Dr iam a sceptic and for good reason ,find it
    Amusing that people on this forum suggest
    That minimising their carbon footprint
    Will make no difference really?
    And nor dos Australia’s contribution to Global Warming? Mention this and they go into meltdown!
    As you know Dr that if Australia Shutdown
    For 6 months it would not make one single bit
    Of difference to Global Warming. Irrefutable!!

    And for the Record iam not a supporter of coal
    Or Adarni on the grounds that it will misuse
    Our greatest resource Water !!
    So when you all take global warming seriously
    And eliminate all that is connected to coal from your lives. The very prosperity you all enjoy today
    Is because of coal , will we all take you seriously
    “You can convince people to believe anything
    Except the truth ”
    “We are a land of sweeping plains of droughts
    And flooding rains ” now that is a fact and the truth”
    Ps .could you please include the major
    Polluters in the conversation regarding Global warming. China, india, America, etc

  3. ‘The oceans have taken up around 40 per cent of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans since 1750’
    Given 97% of CO2 is produced by nature and 3% man, does this mean 1.2% of all CO2 has been absorbed by the oceans and are you saying this 1.2% is causing acidity? How does the ocean distinguish between mans CO2 and that produced by nature and not absorb it as well? also does the heating capacity of CO2 decline as concentrations increase?

  4. Well said. This needs to be broadcast widely!
    It’s all very well for the results of much scientific investigation and reports to be published predicting these dire consequences, (frightening the populace!) but they are of no use when those in power/government take no notice at best, and deny the findings at worst. The upshot is that no action is taken even though solutions have been offered. . And here we are…exactly as predicted.
    Boy, are Australian politicians slow learners! Plus their generous pay & entitlements are not linked to productivity or outcomes, not like the rest of us…even more galling!

  5. The article suggest planting kelp forests to absorb carbon dioxide – but where should we site them?
    Only in the one or two weeks I have read reports of long established kelp forests in Tasmanian waters dying off because of increasing water temperatures. This has led not only to loss of carbon storage, but also to the loss of myriads of sea creatures who lived there, including the much treasured abalone.

  6. Thanks Serena,
    It’s easy to wring our hands in dismay at the lack of action from the current crop of politicians, but we live in a democracy, so theoretically if enough people want real action on climate change, then we can vote these people out. The sort of action on climate change that’s needed will only come if people stand up and demand it at the polling booth.

    If you’re frightened by climate change (and we should all be!), do something: join a climate action group, write to your local member of both State and Federal Parliament (or call them!), and make the environment and climate change your priority when voting at the next election.

  7. Thanks Serena. It’s just a pity that there
    are still those who refuse to listen. Please
    continue your work-findings & ignore the
    dead-beats who won’t learn because it’s
    easier to raise an uninformed opinion. I
    would imagine that ‘talking to a blank
    wall’ has side effects just like a broken
    record played at the wrong speed.
    Forget the critics.

  8. Spoken like a true socialist!! Refuse to listen!
    Others views don’t matter
    Because they don’t fall into line
    With yours !! Uniformed opinions
    More like informed views .
    If you are so concerned about Coal
    Stefanie, turn your electricity of ?
    100% renewables at your residence?
    Thats only one of the privilege’s
    You enjoy because of fossil fuels
    Irony !!

  9. ‘If you’re frightened by climate change (and we should all be!)’
    You make a good point Willow, this is what the Club of Rome had in mind when they dreamed this scam up.
    here is a quote from its founder Aurelio Peccei in 1982 ‘We are creating a global environmental problem that’s going to frighten people into wanting global government.’
    Its heartening to see there are some young people waking up to what is going on, one being Naomi Seibt, Germany’s answer to Greta , who says ‘Don’t panic THINK’

  10. I have renewables & my use is very small… Barrow.
    And Anton – you may have got the quote, Peccei’s,
    from me about 6 month’s ago. Either way, your
    constant stirring surely needs a game change. I’d
    reckon most of us are dead-eared by now. Think
    -ing never hurt anyone. Word clutter is totally
    inefficient & different & preys on the ME-ME.

  11. Yes understand Stefanie, However you objections
    To coal usage is relentless, so if you are taking
    Advantage of base load power which is fossil
    Fuels to power any of your house , brown and black coal ..this would go against
    Everything you stand for would it not ?
    With Respect Stefanie , bit hypocritical !!

  12. John White:
    John White – yes, it’s true that increasing temperatures in the oceans will lower the productivity of kelp forests and may make some areas unsuitable for such forests, but other areas, like the Arctic ocean, may become more suitable:

    “Global warming may lead to northern expansion of kelp forests in some areas.” (Filbee-Dexter et al., 2019)

    Also: https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/arctic-underwater-forests-global-warming-climate-change-a8914761.html

  13. Barrow. Can you please explain “baseload” power? We have all the tech we need to phase out dirty coal power. Only thing lacking is Govt policy! BTW “Democratic socialism” sounds like a great idea to me. This current system is killing us all slowly and surely, unless you’re one of the 1% wealthiest of course, and then you’re immortal!

  14. No, Barrow is not immortal; uninformed & big
    on following the small herd’s more like it.
    He’ll wake up in time after the rest of us have
    done the heavy lifting. Anton’s included as

  15. Stefanie if Global Warming is such a concern in Australia , then why are the Greens not running
    This country? You seem to be a expert on lecturing
    All who are skeptical regarding Global warming
    That would be the majority, the majority are not some small herd as you are implying Stefanie
    And for the record the chosen one the NZ
    Prime Minister who also lectures the world on
    Global Warming will not be see a second term Why ?
    research what NZ are doing for GW
    With the emphasis on the diary industry .
    Oh the irony! And do say this with much respect
    To the Kiwis, who incidentally are some of the most intelligent people on the planet! And Jeremy base load is fossil fuels and the prosperity you enjoy today is Due fossil fuels . And if it is killing us you slowly? We all have a choice!! move to another country that may have less than 1.3 percent
    Of Global emissions you may be happier, if you can
    Find such a country that has all that Australia offers.


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