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With record ocean temps, is the Great Barrier Reef facing catastrophe?

A green turtle in the Great Barrier Reef. Image by Jonas Gratzer for Mongabay.

  • The inaugural international edition of the famed South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and conference took place from October 15-22, 2023 in Sydney and Mongabay spoke with some of the most interesting presenters there.
  • On this edition of the Mongabay Newscast, multiple guests working in coral reef conservation, kelp reforestation and sustainable agriculture detail their projects and challenges they’re tackling.
  • Like the catastrophic Great Barrier Reef bleaching event of 2016, if the current conditions line up just right, “we could lose a huge part of the reef by February,” says guest Dean Miller of the Forever Reef Project, which is now racing to add the final coral specimens to its “biobank.”
  • Guests also include John “Charlie” Veron from the Forever Reef Project, Mic Black from Rainstick, and Adriana Vergés from the Kelp Forest Alliance.

Australia is the first country outside the United States to host the storied South by Southwest conference and film festival, which debuted in Austin, Texas, in 1987. In addition to screening some of the latest in film and television, the conference hosts conversations on media, science and technology, plus conservation.

Mongabay spoke with representatives of three organizations tackling environmental challenges in different ways, listen here:

The Forever Reef Project is an initiative to collect samples of every species of the world’s coral reefs and store them in above-ground biobanks. Dean Miller, managing director of the Great Barrier Reef Legacy discusses the project’s aim, which is to serve as a repository from which researchers and coral restoration efforts can draw. Miller says that collection could be completed in just 100 more dives, but he says it’s possible a single potential bleaching event this summer (December, January and February in Australia) could wipe out the entire reef by February of 2024. These conditions are exacerbated by record global average sea surface temperatures and the arrival of a new El Niño:

“[W]e’re giving ourselves a two-year window, but the way things are shaping up, the predictions of weather … we may not even have that long to collect them all,” he says. He was joined in discussing this by John “Charlie” Veron, a renowned Australian marine biologist.

On a related marine topic, Adriana Vergés joined the show to discuss the work of a project she directs, Kelp Forest Alliance. Vergés is a professor and marine ecologist at the University of New South Wales and explains that the waters around Sydney suffered from heavy water pollution in the 1980s, which impacted its marine life greatly and killed off some kelp species. Vergés works on reintroducing some of those species, particularly crayweed (Phyllospora comosa), and discusses the importance of kelp forests in supporting marine life and in sequestering carbon.

From left to right, Josh Slabb, Adriana Vergés and Dave Rastovich talk during a panel at SXSW Sydney, 2023. Image by Mike DiGirolamo for Mongabay.

And in an agricultural vein, Mic Black, co-founder of the Indigenous-led biotech startup Rainstick, details how the company attempts to address challenges that farmers face from environmental and climatological impacts. His company treats seeds with electricity to mimic lightning’s effects on crops, which are linked to plants’ responses to impending rainfall that he says increase yields and boost conditions favorable for growth. In certain instances, he says it can replace the need or use of fertilizers. “There’s no changes ‘on farm’. It makes it a very low-friction intervention where farmers are already doing practices like this with using chemicals and we’re a non-chemical alternative.”

David Barnett performs the Smoking Ceremony during the opening ceremony for SXSW Sydney on October 15, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for SXSW Sydney)

Related reading:

Scientists strive to restore world’s embattled kelp forests

Hope, but no free pass, as Pacific corals show tolerance to warming oceans

Subscribe to or follow the Mongabay Newscast wherever you get podcasts, from Apple to Spotify, and you can also listen to all episodes here on the Mongabay website, or download our free app for Apple and Android devices to gain instant access to our latest episodes and all our previous ones.

Mike DiGirolamo is Mongabay’s audience engagement associate. Find him on LinkedInBlueskyMastodonInstagram and TikTok.

Banner Image: A green turtle in the Great Barrier Reef. Image by Jonas Gratzer for Mongabay.


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