June 26, 2015
Before travelling to Australia this summer through Susquehanna University's Global Opportunities (GO) program, Michelle Barakat already had a pretty good idea of where she was headed in life.
Barakat, a rising senior from Bethlehem, Pa., is an earth and environmental sciences major who also serves as a Sustainability Service Scholar. She has long been interested in conservation and sustainable agriculture, and she said seeing the effects of climate change firsthand in Australia only confirmed her career aspirations.
Australia has seen serious impacts as a result of climate change. In 2014, the Bureau of Meteorology released a report that highlighted several key points, including the dramatic increase in Australia's temperatures and the increasing frequency of bush fires, droughts and floods.
Barakat and her fellow students, led by biology professor David Richard and Associate Professor of Psychology M.L. Klotz, learned about the loss of some animal species in Australia, such as the Tasmanian tiger, and several plant species. They also witnessed the effects of ozone deterioration.
"The hole in the ozone is the largest over much of Australia, causing the highest rate of skin cancer in the world," Barakat said. "There were special SPF sunglasses sold almost everywhere and plenty of reminders to wear sunscreen."
She witnessed up close the need to seek out crops that are both productive and kind to the environment around them.
"Australia helped me realize how important it is to properly manage those crops that are bringing in a lot of productivity, but are also very bad for the environment," she said. "In Australia, sugar cane is a huge crop, but is taking over the little productive land that Australia has and is threatening much of the unprotected rainforest land."
Perhaps most notable to Barakat was the coral bleaching she saw while snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority considers the greatest threat to the reef to be climate change, which increases coral bleaching and leads to increased disease susceptibility within the reef ecosystem.
The clear impact of climate change on the reef did not, however, detract from its inherent beauty.
"I saw a bunch of fish, some awesome-looking coral and shells, and even a reef shark!" Barakat said. "The water was so clear and beautiful, and it was such a strange and great feeling seeing nothing but ocean around you."