Floods in Australia’s northeastern state of Queensland have swamped an area the size of France and Germany combined, displacing thousands and leaving dozens missing. But the devastating deluge may have another victim: the Great Barrier Reef.
The expansive swath of coral reaching over 1,430 miles along Queensland’s coast is in trouble, experts say. As the driving rains drum on, the Burdekin River is dumping massive amounts of sediment – which contains top soil and harmful pesticides and fertilizers – into the southern end of the reef.
There’s another troubling factor to consider: the area has been pummeled with an unhealthy amount of fresh water, and the potential result is dead coral.
“These are extraordinary events. The whole of the inner-shore reef lagoon filled with river water,” says Jon Brodie, Principle Researcher for the James Cook University’s Australian Center for Tropical Freshwater Research, according to CNN.
Brodie and his colleagues say the coral reefs closest to the river mouth have been impacted the most. But the inundating fresh water could affect the reefs stretching from Frazer Island, 124 miles north of Brisbane, as far as Cairns, 930 miles away.
High levels of nutrients and sediments have been known to cripple coral diversity and increase seaweed cover on inshore reefs, Katarina Fabricius, a researcher at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, told msnbc.com.
Couple the sediment runoff with reduced salinity from all the freshwater, and you have a devastated ecosystem, Brodie says.
Experts expect the immediate death of corals and sea grass, with consequences that will reverberate from grass-eating dugongs up the food chain.
And while larger fish can swim out of the plumes of fresh water, smaller coral reef dwellers won’t be so lucky, says Brodie.
When coral organisms die, they lose their vibrant colors and leave only their white skeletons behind – hence the term “coral bleaching.”
While the event would be potentially devastating for marine life, some species would profit from the flooding.
“Some fish species thrive in the current flood plume conditions which can enhance productivity for some popular inshore species,” Andrew Skeat, General Manager of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said in a press statement, according to CNN.
Previous large floods have created algae blooms and starfish outbreaks that overtake the reefs, Fabricius said.
Michelle Devlin, a researcher at James Cook University in northern Queensland, told AFP that the fresh water, soil nutrients and pesticides will act as a harmful “cocktail” for the fragile reefs.
“This is a really massive event,” Devlin said. “It has the potential to shift the food web, it has the potential to shift how the reef operates.”