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Can technology save the Great Barrier Reef?

Written by Science

Excessive nutrient discharges are a well-documented risk to the chemical and ecological quality of aquatic ecosystems. This can lead to both short-term and long-term degradation, collapse, and destruction of natural systems. However, with the effective use of technology, humanity might be able to regulate these negative impacts.

A recent BBC report highlighted the use of technology to protect ecosystems, specifically within an agricultural setting. This may be done by recording nutrient pollution from sugarcane farm lagoons in Queensland, to target increasing nitrogen pollution before it threatens the coral diversity within the world-famous Great Barrier Reef. 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Great Barrier Reef evolved over time with limited levels of nitrogen. Therefore, shifting this balance alters natural conditions and accelerates the growth of opportunistic species, particularly algae. 

Drones can be fitted with spectrometers to monitor health of ecosystems over time

Technology can offer a solution to improve management of these systems, by simplifying the sampling, record keeping and identification of at-risk areas, correlating this with real-time weather events. 

Another technological solution explored was the use of drones to target specific areas of cropland with pesticide. The use of precision farming techniques, like these, both increases effectiveness and reduces the overuse of chemicals. Furthermore, these drones can be fitted with spectrometers to monitor health of ecosystems over time. However, it is not as simple as using technology alone.  

Tackling diffuse discharges requires stakeholder interaction to deliver and promote structural policy change

Diffuse sources of nutrient pollution can come from multiple sources, having an accumulative effect which impacts a wider catchment. Therefore, tackling diffuse discharges usually requires stakeholder interaction to deliver and promote structural policy changes and initiatives to encourage better practice. 

Strategies such as the implementation of catchment and river basin plans, regulation of chemical and pesticide usage, environmentally sensitive or precision farming, and establishing buffers to limit run-off, are common practice. However, these would have to be rolled out on a larger scale with collective buy-in to maximise long-term benefits.

Nutrient loading is only part of the threats to habitats like the Great Barrier Reef.  

Image Credit: James Gilmour, Australian Institute of Marine Science

Ocean pH and temperature impacts coral bleaching events, with the effects accelerated by…you guessed it, climate change. Increased atmospheric CO2 accelerates global temperatures and more carbon is absorbed into oceans, leading to acidification. 

Reversing human induced climate change plays a critical role in the long-term survival of the Great Barrier Reef

These changes then lead to rapid destruction of habitats, which not only reduces species diversity but leads to complete species removal. Reversing human induced climate change therefore plays a critical role in the long-term survival of the Great Barrier Reef. 

Immediate action is critical; this is reflected in an article by Dietzel et al (2020), which outlines significant declines, across all coral colony sizes, compared to historical baselines assessed in 1995/96. Furthermore, Dietzel et al (2020) suggest that recovery potential and population resilience is being reduced. So, yes, we need to reduce nutrient loading, but this also includes limiting carbon entering the atmosphere, and tackling climate change on an international scale.  

Supporting the development and uptake of technology should be encouraged, however it should not be the sole focus

Technology forms only part of a solution, and some might say it’s useless if collective action alongside behavioural and structural change in practice is not taken. Supporting the development and uptake of technology should be encouraged, however it should not be the sole focus.

While we should not rely only on these technological innovations, the positives technology can provide in rectifying human induced environmental damage may help protect nature for the benefit of all in society. 

Featured Image: Pxfuel

Last modified: 31st October 2020

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