Great Barrier Reef storm damage severe but patchy

Mon Mar 7, 2011 12:51pm EST
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By Pauline Askin

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Powerful cyclone Yasi caused patchy but severe damage to Australia's famed Great Barrier Reef when it tore through last month, with some areas little more than rubble, scientists said Monday.

But while pockets of centuries-old coral was destroyed and recovery may take decades, most of the damage was confined to areas with so little tourism that many of the reef sites don't even have names, with major areas spared.

The assessment, carried out by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority (GBRMPA) and Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, surveyed 36 reefs or some 300 km (186 miles) of the 2,400 km-long reef that makes up the popular tourist site, which contributes billions of dollars to Australia's economy annually.

"There were some reefs that were very severely damaged, in some of those areas there was hardly a coral left alive and big places of coral rubble and broken plates that had been ripped off the reef," said Paul Marshall, GBRMPA assessment co-ordinator.

"That was pretty heart-wrenching, to see just how some of these areas have been affected. Some of these areas were coral gardens I knew quite well and now they're just reduced to rubble."

Yasi was rated a maximum-strength category five storm and was roughly the size of Italy.

While corals known as "bommies" or coral heads are generally more robust, Marshall said that during the course of the survey they came across broken bommies, some up to 4 meters (13 ft 1.4 in) wide, lying on the ocean bed.

"You start to imagine the force that must have been happening underwater," he said.   Continued...

<p>A satellite image obtained from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory shows Cyclone Yasi making landfall in Queensland, Australia, late February 2, 2011. REUTERS/U.S. Naval Research Laboratory/Marine Meteorological Division/Handout</p>