As already pointed out by Mark, this headline from a couple of days ago:

Great Barrier Reef sees record coral cover, but it is highly vulnerable

…was shocking in its transparent desperation to find a way to convolute good news into a knot tight enough to twist it into a portent of climate doom. It’s as if I gave you a bottle of Port Charlotte, and your response was “Thanks, but I might drop it.”

In fact the headlines about the Great Barrier Reef have quite a history. I picked a couple of classics to use in Denierland, but they really were the tip of the reef. Before warmer ocean temperatures were the main threat, we had Chinese oil freighters crashing into the reef. We had dredging. Port development. Mud. Pollution from agriculture. The good old crown-of-thorns. Acidity. Cyclones smashing stuff up, as they tend to do. Things were grim and getting grimmer. By 2012:

“Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has lost more than half its coral cover since 1985, according to a new study. The loss has been spurred by a combination of factors including hurricanes, coral-eating starfish and coral bleaching.

The paper, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the most comprehensive survey of a reef system over such a long period. The researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science found that reef cover fell from 28 per cent to 13.8 per cent over the past 27 years, with two-thirds of the decline occurring since 1998.

“We are basically losing an ecosystem that is so iconic for Australia and the rest of the world,” said institute scientist Katharina E. Fabricius, one of the paper’s authors.

At the current rate of loss, researchers said, the Great Barrier Reef will lose half of its coral cover again by 2022, putting it on par with the Caribbean. “It will be really very low in 10 to 15 years,” Fabricius said.

Independent

On its knees by 2012, unusually warm sea temperatures in 2016 – made “175 times more likely”* by Homo sapiens and his addiction to SUVs – finally finished the Great Barrier Reef off.

Toronto Star

Indeed the map from the Toronto Star purported to show that much of the northern reef was in fact dead:

Ibid.

A year later, in 2017, first The Guardian and then the Telegraph were adamant that the reef was beyond saving.

The Guardian

However, by 2018 it became clear that the reef was not yet, in fact, an ex reef.

Newsweek

Thank Science for the experts, eh? What would we do without them? But only two years later they realised that the scientific detachment that had served them so well briefly in 2018 was an outmoded ideal and let themselves get all emotional about the state of the reef:

The Conversation

The surveyors being Hughes and Pratchett of James Cook. Last year Terry Hughes returned to The Conversation with evidence – or at least a scary map – to show that the game was over, so there.

Original caption: Map of the Great Barrier Reef showing the cumulative level of bleaching observed in 2016, 2017 and 2020. The colours represent the intensity of bleaching, ranging from zero (category 1, dark blue) to severe bleaching that affected more than 60% of corals (category 4, red). Author provided

And even this year The Guardian was reporting that 91% of the individual reefs were affected by bleaching:

The Guardian

That was back a hundred years ago, I mean a quarter of a year ago. Now, in August 2022 we have a mote of good news. Except that it isn’t, or at least, we can’t accept that it is, or might be. The narrative is too strong: the reef is doomed. It has to be.

Slamming the brakes on the hype train for a minute: why should we accept that the Great Barrier Reef’s doom is an established fact, even in the face of warmer sea temperatures, which are either baked in or cooked up, according to your preference? This figure illustrates what every schoolkid knows – or once did: coral reefs, or at least the zooxanthellate kind, like it hot.

The 70F isotherm diagram comes from Tom Garrison’s Essentials of Oceanography, though the snip comes from somewhere else (“Redox College,” whatever that is).

The GBR, as the diagrams of its corpse above show, stops half-way down the Queensland coast. Why? Why no reef around Tasmania? Too hot further south? Of course not. It’s too cold further south.

In fact the large majority of the ocean is too cold for coral reefs (the deep water kind, without the symbionts, notwithstanding). This simple and elementary observation means that coral reefs are not in danger as a phenomenon. A trillion SUVs wouldn’t be able to rid the Earth of them. Maybe some seas will one day be too hot for them? As far as I know, the Red Sea is about the hottest, and…

A recent underwater expedition to the Red Sea offshore from Sudan and Eritrea found surface water temperatures 28 °C (82 °F) in winter and up to 34 °C (93 °F) in the summer, but despite that extreme heat, the coral was healthy with much fish life with very little sign of coral bleaching, with only 9% infected by Thalassomonas loyana, the ‘white plague’ agent.

Wiki page on the Red Sea

The GBR, meanwhile:

The surface water temperature varies on the south of the sea from 19 °C in August to 24 °C in February. It is rather warm and stable at 27–28 °С in the north all through the year.

Wiki page on the Coral Sea

The consensus is that 28 °С is cooler than 34 °С. So there we have it. Apocalyptic headlines notwithstanding, the GBR is not dead, and not doomed. Wait. What about sea level rise? I forgot about sea level rise. The Great Barrier Reef is doomed, I tell ya, doomed!

Featured Image

Bêche de mer, from W. Saville-Kent (1893). The Great Barrier Reef of Australia: its Products and Potentialities. Allen & Co. [Available at Archive.org.]

Note

*Climate central‘s comment about 175 times more likely:

Climate change made it 175 times more likely that the surface waters of the Coral Sea, which off the Queensland coastline is home to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, would reach the record-breaking temperatures last month that bleached reefs, modeling analysis showed.

7 Comments

  1. So the GBR fear industry is so confident that that their lying doesn’t matter to the public that they are willing to confess that they are liars.

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  2. Jit, thanks for the much-needed context about the past hysteria surrounding the GBR. I chose to concentrate on the crazy nature of good news being served up as (potentially) bad news, as it has to be if the doom narrative is to be maintained. Your excellent piece helps to demonstrate just how wrong the “experts” have been on a regular basis.

    I’m not holding my breath while I wait for apologies from said experts for the fact that nature has proved them wrong (again), nor am I expecting a BBC fact-check by their climate disinformation specialists, on earlier horror stories, any time soon.

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  3. Hunterson, I don’t doubt that the scientists involved are honourable people who care about the reef and wouldn’t dream of saying anything they don’t believe. Whence come all these alarming stories, if that is the case? I think it is very easy to conclude that everything is terrible when it is not, even using the supposedly objective methods of science. This is undoubtedly a particular issue when the subject is something as magnificent and beautiful as the Great Barrier Reef.

    In part this may be due to a combination of a sense of awe in Nature and the simultaneous feeling that Nature is particularly vulnerable to the mere existence of humans. Not only do humans bring pollution via their activities, but simply by putting themselves in the same space as Nature, they contaminate it.

    Simple thoughtlessness, as in the discarding of face coverings that end up polluting the environment, very easily takes on an aura of malevolence. (I know littering makes me angry.)

    Damage – a good example is wildfires – often happens rapidly and is very obvious. Burnt areas are described as “destroyed” in the press. But they really ain’t. Nature is inevitable. Regrowth begins as soon as the ground is cool enough. A decade will pass, by which time there will be enough Nature again for it to be destroyed once more, to great alarm and indignation in the press.

    My prediction is that the Great Barrier Reef will continue to be destroyed, year in and year out, but that it will nevertheless endure for millions of years to come.

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  4. JIT. I need to comment upon your final statement because I don’t believe the GBR will last for millions of years. We are still in a glacial episode and within ten thousand years more and more seawater will become locked up in polar regions as ice sheets. This, if things follow the same pattern, will cause the sea surface to drop to levels well below that where reefs flourish. Reefs will become very restricted and in some places barely survive. When sea level begins to rise in interglacials these small refugia will populate the former sites of reefs. But not necessarily always. Not all past interglacials, for example, had a flourishing GBR. So presumably it does not follow that a new GBR will automatically regrow in the interglacial that follows our own. That would be a tragedy because even the smallest part of it that I saw was beautiful beyond words.

    I was told then that bleaching was caused by the excessive heat experienced by remaining water pools during excessively low tides. Who to believe?

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  5. Jit,

    My understanding is that it isn’t the absolute temperatures that cause the bleaching but the sudden changes in temperature caused by ‘climate breakdown’. This would mean, of course, that recoveries are to become a much more common phenomenon.

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