Hidden Environmental Threat to the Great Barrier Reef Unveiled by Scientists

by Mateo Gonzalez
10 comments
Groundwater Impact on Great Barrier Reef

Graph illustrating groundwater origins at the Great Barrier Reef. Attribution: Douglas Tait

Research reveals almost double the nitrogen is being introduced into the Reef via groundwater than through river systems.

Utilizing natural markers near the Queensland coast, researchers have identified unmeasured amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus that are significantly affecting the environmental stability of the Great Barrier Reef.

The study, released today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, suggests that existing conservation and restoration initiatives aimed at the Reef may need reevaluation.

The pioneering research, entitled ‘Subterranean Groundwater Outflow Surpasses Riverine Contributions as a Nutrient Source to the Great Barrier Reef,’ is spearheaded by Dr. Douglas Tait of Southern Cross University.

Subterranean groundwater outflows are waters discharged into the ocean beneath the surface level, originating from various sources like underground water reservoirs and ocean floor.

Composite image showing unspoiled coral next to eutrophicated coral on the Great Barrier Reef. Attribution: Ashly McMahon

Research Outcomes and Consequences

The research consortium, which also involves CSIRO, AIMS, and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, gathered information from ocean transects, river systems, and coastal wells in a region stretching from south of Rockhampton to north of Cairns. The use of radium isotopic markers enabled the researchers to monitor nutrient transportation from terrestrial and shelf sediment through unseen groundwater flows.

Professor Damien Maher of Southern Cross University indicated that the study revealed groundwater discharges were 10-15 times higher than those from rivers, a factor previously not considered.

“Groundwater discharges are responsible for about one-third of new nitrogen and two-thirds of new phosphorus entries, which shows that nearly double the amount of nitrogen is entering the Reef from groundwater in comparison to river sources,” stated Professor Maher.

He further noted that the majority of nutrient impact mitigation strategies have been focused on river outflows up to this point.

Projected Environmental Consequences and Guidelines

Lead researcher Dr. Douglas Tait emphasized that nutrients are crucial for sustaining the Reef’s extraordinary biodiversity.

“Nevertheless, nutrient surplus can result in negative effects such as noxious algal blooms, outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, and an increase in fish illnesses, which have been escalating in the Reef over recent years,” he said.

Dr. Tait underscored the necessity for a tactical reorientation in management strategies that aim to shield the Great Barrier Reef from the negative impacts of excessive nutrients.

He mentioned that, unlike nutrients from river outflows, those from groundwater could be preserved underground for many years before entering coastal waters, implying that the approaches to protect the Reef need to be long-lasting.

“This research brings new insights into the intricate nutrient mechanisms at play within the Great Barrier Reef,” stated Dr. Tait.

“The capacity to effectively govern nutrient sources is critical for the enduring conservation of the Reef for future generations.”

Reference: “Subterranean Groundwater Outflow Surpasses Riverine Contributions as a Nutrient Source to the Great Barrier Reef” by Douglas R. Tait, Isaac R. Santos, Sèbastien Lamontagne, James Z. Sippo, Ashley McMahon, Luke C. Jeffrey, and Damien T. Maher, dated October 8, 2023, in Environmental Science & Technology.
DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.3c03725

Financial backing for the project was provided by the Australian Research Council, the Herman Slade Foundation, and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Groundwater Impact on Great Barrier Reef

What is the primary focus of the research on the Great Barrier Reef?

The primary focus of the research is to identify the sources of nitrogen and phosphorus affecting the environmental health of the Great Barrier Reef. The study reveals that groundwater is a significant, previously underestimated source of these nutrients.

Who led the research study?

The research study was led by Dr. Douglas Tait of Southern Cross University. The research team also included members from CSIRO, AIMS, and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

What methodology was employed for the study?

The research team collected data from offshore transects, rivers, and coastal bores. They utilized radium isotopic markers to track the amount of nutrient transported from the land and shelf sediment through unseen groundwater flows.

What are the key findings of the research?

The key findings indicate that groundwater discharges are 10-15 times greater than river inputs in delivering nutrients to the Great Barrier Reef. Groundwater accounts for about one-third of new nitrogen and two-thirds of new phosphorus entries into the Reef.

Why are these findings significant?

The findings are significant because they call for a reassessment of existing conservation and management strategies focused on the Great Barrier Reef. Prior efforts have mainly targeted river outflows, but the new research highlights the importance of also considering groundwater sources.

What are the environmental implications of excessive nutrients in the Reef?

Excessive nutrients can lead to harmful environmental consequences like noxious algal blooms, outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, and an increase in fish diseases, all of which have been escalating in the Reef over recent years.

What recommendations does the study offer for conservation efforts?

The study recommends a strategic shift in management approaches to include groundwater as a significant source of nutrients. Conservation strategies need to be long-term, considering that nutrients in groundwater can be stored for decades before being discharged into coastal waters.

Who funded the research?

The research was financially supported by the Australian Research Council, the Herman Slade Foundation, and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

Where was the research published?

The research was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, dated October 8, 2023. The DOI for the publication is 10.1021/acs.est.3c03725.

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10 comments

Mike87 October 9, 2023 - 5:23 am

So its not just rivers huh. what else are we missing in protecting the Reef?

Reply
Linda O October 9, 2023 - 7:09 am

This is so important, especially with the rising number of fish diseases and algal blooms. we cant ignore this any longer.

Reply
John S October 9, 2023 - 8:13 am

Wow, I never knew groundwater could have such a big impact on the Great Barrier Reef. It’s kinda scary to think that we’ve been focusing on rivers all this time!

Reply
NancyH October 9, 2023 - 8:51 am

Radium isotopes, really? Science is fascinating, and I hope this research leads to actionable solutions.

Reply
TimothyK October 9, 2023 - 11:30 am

So the nitrogen and phosphorus are coming frm groundwater too? thats huge and could really be a game changer for conservation strategies.

Reply
Steve_W October 9, 2023 - 12:15 pm

Mind-blowing study. But now the question is how do we act on this info? Time is ticking for the Reef.

Reply
Samantha Q October 9, 2023 - 1:58 pm

This is groundbreaking. Totally changes how we need to approach conservation. Are governments even paying attention to this?

Reply
KarenM October 9, 2023 - 8:36 pm

Funding from three different organizations? Shows how serious and important this research is. Kudos to the team!

Reply
Rachel_A October 9, 2023 - 9:21 pm

Dr. Tait and his team are doing crucial work here. It’s about time we reevaluate how we’re preserving the reef. Long-term planning is a must!

Reply
AlexP October 9, 2023 - 9:34 pm

This should be front page news. The reef is like the canary in the coal mine for climate and environmental issues.

Reply

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