Space & Innovation

Will Coal Mining Endanger the Great Barrier Reef?

Environmentalists say it will accelerate climate change that's destroying one of the world's wonders. Continue reading →

The government of the Australian state of Queensland has approved a controversial coal mining project that scientists and environmental groups worry may harm the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest collection of coral formations.

Queensland Minister for Natural Resources and Mines Anthony Lynham recently approved the grant of three individual mining leases for the $21.7 billion Carmichael mining project, which would extract about 60 million tons of coal each year from the inland Galilee Basin. Adani, the Indian energy company that will build and operate the mine, describes it as "a core component of Adani's plans for delivering energy security in India, as well as pursing export opportunities in other Asian markets."

PHOTOS: Life in Australia's Great Barrier Reef

To handle those coal exports, the port at Abbott Point, which is next to the reef, would be expanded, according to New Scientist. Environmentalists fear that could release plumes of soil and debris over the reef, damaging a delicate ecosystem. Worse yet, they say, eventually burning all of that coal would put a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. helping to drive the climate change that's raising sea temperatures and causing the reef to deteriorate. (Here is a sobering Australian government report on the reef's increasingly fragile health.)

Charlie Veron, former chief scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and one of the world's leading experts on coral reefs, denounced the approval.

"It defies reason," Veron, who has discovered 20 percent of the world's coral species, told the Sydney Morning Herald. "I think there is no single action that could be as harmful to the Great Barrier Reef as the Carmichael coal mine."

NEWS: Scientists Say Australia's Plan Won't Save Great Barrier Reef

The project is also opposed by the Australian Conservation Foundation, which is challenging the legality of previous approvals by Australia's national government, which it says violate Australia's international obligations to protect the World Heritage-listed reef. The case will be heard in a court in Brisbane in early May.

Queensland environmental minister Lynham has said that numerous environment-protecting conditions have been placed on the project already.

According to the Herald, more than a dozen of the world's major banks have declined to fund the project.

This satellite image depicts Great Barrier Reef, which extends for nearly 1,250 miles along the northeastern coast of Australia.

A pair of Common reef cuttlefish (Sepia latimanus) hovers above a patch of hard coral located on the Far Northern part of the Great Barrier Reef. With the ocean warming, rising, and becoming more acidic, coupled with land runoff, marine pollution and coastal development -- life in Australia's Great Barrier Reef is threatened from all sides and may be placed on the "in danger" designation for UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Can Australia meet the challenge to do a better job of protection by 2014? Here's some photos of what's at risk.

Clownfish protect their eggs hidden in a sea anemone on the Great Barrier Reef.

The most-loved Heart Reef among the Whitsunday Islands in the Great Barrier Reef is part of the protected off-limits areas to SCUBA divers and snorklers.

Three sea turtles in the Great Barrier Reef.

A flying gurnard (Dactyloptena orientalis), spreads out large pectorals to scare away enemies on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

A ribbon eel in the Great Barrier Reef.

The poisonous blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena lunulata) stalks prey among the coral.

The size isn't intimidating, but the deadly poison is; divers wear gloves to hold the blue-ringed octopus.

A black-blotched moray eel at home in the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.

Christmas tree tube worms on the Great Barrier Reef.

The polyps on this stalk of Acropora echinata, a type of Staghorn coral, show vividly colored tips.

Many reefs around the world are threatened by bleaching, as sea temperatures become too warm and stress the corals. The high temperatures kill the colorful polyps, and leave a reef cemetery of coral skeletons.

Staghorn Coral release eggs and sperm in a mass spawning event on the Great Barrier Reef.

The head of a whale shark (Rhincodon typus), near Ningaloo Reef in West Australia - Indian Ocean. Whale sharks feed on the eggs and sperm released from coral during massive spawning events a few days after the full moon between October and December.

What goes in must come out. A sea cucumber (Thelnota ananas) leaves a trail of waste as it processes its food.

An olive sea snake explores Alcyonarian coral.

The head of an Ocellated Epaulette shark (Hemiscyllium ocellatum), in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

Sea level rise poses a real threat to many parts of Australia. Already increased coastal erosion as a result of sea level rise is evident, as here where trees have been undercut and toppled by erosion on Green Island off Cairns in Queensland, Australia.

A rusting anchor chain rests amid the skeletons of pieces of hard coral in the Great Barrier Reef. Marine pollution comes in many different forms, but always from human hands. Greater protection and awareness of human impact on the reef is critical.