Testing the Waters

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Photograph by Stephen Dupont for TIME

Where has all the color gone? Parts of the Great Barrier Reef have undergone an aesthetic decline, reflecting the dangers from global warming that the vast, fragile ecosystem faces

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The Perils of Progress
The Great Barrier Reef also plays a part in another kind of chain: the global commodities trade. Australia is the world's largest exporter of coking coal, used to make steel, and the second largest exporter of thermal coal, used for power. Over half that supply comes from Queensland's 57 coal mines, many of which were temporarily shut by the floods. Coal exports have slowed to a trickle, but before the devastating rains came, the machinery of the industry was chugging along — and it will again. Mile-long trains move 24/7 between the mines and the docks of Gladstone port, pausing only to fill up and release their 8,000-ton loads onto black stockpile mountains. "They're opening new mines out there all the time," says Alan Martin, who has worked in the coal terminal for 37 years. He waves a tanned hand creased with coal dust toward Queensland's sprawling interior. "It's going to get bigger and bigger."

The floods will not stem the world's appetite for coal, and as ship traffic to and from Gladstone grows, ever more vessels will weave in and out of the reef's delicate byways. The chance for something to go awry is high. Last year, it did. At 5:40 a.m. on April 3, a warm Saturday morning at Gladstone harbor, the final dregs of 68,052 tons of coal were loaded into the iron hull of the Chinese-flagged Shen Neng 1. The first mate miscalculated the long journey through the labyrinth of shoals and coral atolls outside the harbor: instead of hanging a right at a crucial juncture, the ship went straight and shuddered to a halt in a stretch of sand, shells and coral. According to a preliminary assessment released in July, about five acres (two hectares) of reef were damaged, some parts reduced to a fine rubble covered in toxic paint from the bottom of the ship.

In May, shortly after the Shen Neng 1 grounding, a China-bound tanker carrying timber hit a coral reef (not within the park boundaries) in the Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea; in late July a Liberian-registered, Greek-owned coal carrier bound for Japan broke down and had to be escorted by an Australian tugboat through the reef. The Shen Neng 1, in addition to reducing several kilometers of reef to rubble, spilled about five tons of oil from its fuel tanks when it went aground. That's not much, but it was carrying 1,000 tons. "This is a highly sensitive area and [a larger spill] would have been catastrophic," says Russell Reichelt, chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. "We feel very lucky nothing worse happened."

A River Runs Through It
Before this rainy season hit, delivering the second wettest year in a century to parts of Queensland's cattle country, the horizons were still thirsty expanses of yellow brush and eucalyptus, where empty roads are punctuated by the sight of the odd kangaroo carcass or the unlikely silhouette of an emu hustling by in its feather skirts.

When the eastern Australian bush is in good shape, the turf is covered in scraggly, knee-deep grasses that help keep the topsoil in place if the rains come. But it isn't unheard of for cattle ranchers, or graziers, as they're called there, to pack too many cattle onto their property, where the animals gnaw on the vegetation until the land is bare. And when the grass is gone, even minor rainfall, let alone torrents like the recent ones, can wash away the loose topsoil, sending thick sediment into rivers like the Burdekin and on to the ocean. Phosphorus and nitrogen, used in fertilizers, as well as herbicides and insecticides, hitch a ride on dirt sediment downriver, eventually reaching the reef where they can, among other things, cause algae blooms that smother the corals. In the past 150 years the amount of sediment draining into the reef has increased up to five times. "The problem is that we're getting these floods on a regular basis, and we're heating up the water in between," says Hoegh-Guldberg. "With the combination of the flood impact and the warming seas, corals are struggling to keep pace."

In 2008 Canberra funneled $200 million into a program called Reef Rescue that works with graziers and crop farmers to help monitor the water quality on their property and manage their land in ways that minimize sediment runoff. These efforts don't necessarily sit well with people who eke out a living from some of the hardest land on the planet. Roger Landsberg, a third-generation grazier who has always managed his pastures outside the northeast Queensland town of Charters Towers with great care, wonders why he and his colleagues are being closely watched at such expense when Canberra has broader environmental challenges to tackle. "Coal is now the biggest moneymaker in Queensland," says Landsberg. "How can a government say on one hand we want to lower emissions and on the other send delegations off to China? You can't have your cake and eat it too."

Back in the lab on Heron Island, marine biologist Elizabeth Madin sits in front of a Google Earth image of the reefs surrounding the island. She describes what's known as "fishing the line," a common practice whereby boats in areas like the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which is divided into fishing and no-fishing zones, go to the borders of protected areas to catch the fish that swim out. It's legal, but it's easy to see how such protection systems break down when fish cross the invisible boundaries. Nature, after all, doesn't obey man's rules. I can't help wondering if Australia and other nations are, in a way, themselves fishing the line. They draft good laws to protect their marine environments — better training for ship pilots, or better management of sediment runoff — but cheat the system by not taking meaningful action on the underlying source of all these problems: our dependence on fossil fuels. "No matter how well you manage the reef, you can't affect its future unless we change the way we live," says Marshall. "We need to start doing that right now."

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 7, 2011 issue of TIME Magazine Asia.

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