THE GREAT LAKES OF NORTH AMERICA AND THE GREAT BARRIER REEF OF AUSTRALIA; MORE IN COMMON THAN ONE MIGHT THINK

Posted on April 18, 2018 by David Ullrich

Although separated by over 8,000 miles and representing vastly different ecosystems, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and the Great Lakes of North American share much in common.  As globally significant resources, they not only help define the countries so fortunate to host them, they are major contributors to the social, economic, and environmental vibrancy of their cultures.  They are both very big and visible from space, with the Great Lakes having well over 10,000 miles of shoreline and the Great Barrier Reef stretching over 1200 miles of coast in Queensland.  At the same time, many similar challenges face the communities that are charged with the stewardship of the resources to make sure their integrity is preserved for future generations.

At the top of the list is climate change.  For the Great Barrier Reef, the warmer ocean temperatures have resulted in significant bleaching events over the past twenty years and have caused damage to major portions of the Reef, although much of its beauty remains intact. The increase in severity and intensity of cyclones has also caused major physical damage to the Reef all up and down the coast of the Coral Sea.  As the storms travel inland with heavy rains, the runoff from agriculture brings vast quantities of sediment and nutrients to the nearshore areas of the Reef.  The siltation can smother the coral and the nutrients are thought to contribute significantly to the explosion of the indigenous crown of thorns starfish that attack and destroy coral. 

Climate change is also putting extensive stress on the Great Lakes.  The warmer temperatures are leading to less ice cover, more evaporation, and lower lake levels.  However, the more frequent and intense rainfall events are putting more water back into the system.  Experts differ on the long term implications.  In the short term, lake levels seem to be going up and down more rapidly and to a greater degree than before, leading to navigational and erosion problems.  In addition, the heavy rains have increased nutrient runoff from agriculture and urban areas, leading to alarming algal blooms and drinking water crises like those in Toledo, Ohio and Pelee Island, Ontario on Lake Erie.  The nutrients also contribute to the formation of low oxygen dead zones that can result in fish kills.  In addition to climate change, the battle against invasive species such as sea lamprey and zebra and quagga mussels seems endless, while grass, silver, bighead, and black carp continue as major threats to the $7 billion fishery of the Great Lakes.

As strategies and approaches to dealing with these challenges are developed in Australia, Canada, and the United States, we would be well served to share ideas with one another on how best to meet them.  We have a tremendous responsibility as stewards of these global treasures to protect and preserve them for future generations.  It would be a tragedy to be resigned to renaming them the “Pretty Good Barrier Reef” and the “Pretty Good Lakes.”