C: Australian Institute of Marine Science
C: Australian Institute of Marine Science

The environmental community is mourning the death of the award-winning photographer, Gary Braasch, who died yesterday doing a job he loved. He was snorkelling at the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef documenting the effects of climate change.

You may not know his name but you will know Braasch’s photographs. From Portland in Oregon, the seventy-year old Braasch had travelled the world documenting the increasingly effects of global warming.

Texas Tech University climate researcher Katharine Hayhoe, reflected on Braasch’s death: “Gary passed away yesterday doing what he loved best, snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef. I hope there are many hands ready to pick up his camera; we desperately need those very human reminders of why a changing climate matters, to all of us.”

The timing of his death could not be more poignant. The Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage Site, is the world’s largest living ecosystem and stretches over 2,000 km. Tourism linked to the Reef generates $6 billion and 70,000 tourism jobs.

But the Reef and the livelihoods of all those who depend on it, are under severe threat. It faces permanent destruction and damage due to increasingly coral bleaching caused by climate change, exacerbated by an unusually strong El Nino.

Last week the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority warned of an imminent coral bleaching event. The Authority said it had already detected patchy bleaching on multiple reefs in predominantly shallow water.

The Chair of the Authority Russell Reichelt told the Syndney Morning Herald “the next few weeks will be critical … Bleaching is a clear signal that living corals are under physiological stress. If that stress is bad enough for long enough, the corals can die. Corals generally have a temperature limit, and the bleaching indicates they’re outside of their comfort zone.”

Others are concerned too: WWF Australia last week released images of bleaching on the Reef’s Lizard Island: “Right now, the Great Barrier Reef is on a knife-edge,” said its Great Barrier Reef campaigner Louise Matthiesson.

One scientist who has dived on the Reef for 45 years is Dr John ‘Charlie’ Veron. During that time he has identified 20 per cent of the world’s coral species, earning him the nickname of “Godfather of Coral.”

Yesterday he warned that the situation was so bad that “we are precipitating the conditions for a mass extinction.”

And as bad as things are now they are set to get worse, with Veron warning “We won’t see the results of today’s carbon dioxide levels for another 20 to 30 years.”

Environmental campaigners are arguing that their Government has to act.

Blair Palese, chief executive of 350.org in the country believes the “tragic coral bleaching” showed that fossil fuels were “warming the planet and destroying the places we love most”.

If the Australian government is “serious about climate change” she says, they will “put a stop to new fossil fuel development.”