Opinion is divided over how the Great Barrier Reef will fare in Queensland’s worst floods in 50 years.
The massive downpours have sent debris coursing down rivers in the north-eastern Australian state and out toward the country’s most precious tourist attraction.
Some fear the plume of sediment would give a dusting of topsoil to the reef that would choke its corals, which are also having to deal with alternate pulses of freshwater and saltwater by the weather event.
Others maintained that corals are hardier than most people think and the reef would recover from the setback as it has from others.
The reef is not a single geographical feature but an assemblage of 2,900 individual reefs stretching 2,600 kilometres down the Queensland coast. Some would be affected, but most would not.
Australian Institute of Marine Science head Ian Poiner said the flood of freshwater washing over parts of the reef would stress both the coral and the fish that feed there, resulting in a high mortality rate.
But Alison Jones from Central Queensland University said that although mortality would be high, a full recovery from the trauma could be expected.
“The 1991 flood was extremely hard for the reef - pretty much most of the corals were wiped out down to about 6 to 8 metres of depth,” she said. “It took about 10 years for them to recover, but they recovered magnificently. We’re very spoiled here in terms of the amount of coral and the speed at which it can grow and recover.” David Wachenfeld, chief scientist at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, also testified to how speedily the reef can get its gleam back.
“It’s incredibly heartening to see how quickly a really healthy coral reef can respond,” he said when commenting on a 2008 study of coral at Great Keppel Island, 12 kilometres off the central Queensland coast.
The coral had recovered within 12 months from a massive coral bleaching in 2006.
In the short term, scuba divers and snorkelers out for a close look at the reef are in for a disappointment.
“Visibility is down to 1 metre,” said Laureth Craggs, owner of the Pumpkin Island Resort off Yeppoon.
“[Visibility] is usually 25 to 30 metres under water, but the usually crystal-clear turquoise water is a murky mud brown,” she told Brisbane’s Courier Mail newspaper. “You can’t see a thing.” The health of the reef is a big issue because it draws 2 million tourists a year and supports 12,000 jobs.