The world’s biggest coral reef ecosystem is experiencing “severe” bleaching as a result of climate change, environmental groups and Australian government officials are warning. 

According to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, recent underwater surveys have detected “substantial levels of coral mortality” in remote far north areas of the reef, due in part to higher-than-average sea surface temperatures. The Authority on Sunday raised its bleaching threat level to three—the highest level in its response plan, indicating “severe regional bleaching.”

“Scientists are clear—we can have coal or the reef.”
—Larissa Waters, Queensland Greens senator

And on Monday, World Wildlife Fund-Australia released underwater images taken of bleached corals around Lizard Island, showing “large sections of coral drained of all color and fighting for survival,” as a spokesperson put it. 

“As the IPCC has stated, coral bleaching is the most widespread and conspicuous impact of climate change,” said the WWF’s Richard Leck. “We can turn this around. The Reef can recover but we must speed up the shift to clean, renewable energy and we must build reef resilience by reducing runoff pollution from farms and land clearing.”

Added Greenpeace Australia Pacific’s Shani Tager on Monday, “The pictures we’re seeing coming out of the northern Great Barrier Reef are devastating. The Queensland and federal governments must see this as a red alert and act accordingly.”

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But in fact, Australian environment minister Greg Hunt was criticized Sunday for “sidestepping” the central role of climate change and heat stress as the cause of the bleaching, the Guardian reported. 

Instead, he highlighted the role of El Niño and omitted any mention of fossil fuels, leading the chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Kelly O’Shanassy, to say Hunt “appears to be confused about the cause of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.”