Fact Check

Scientists Pronounce Great Barrier Reef 'Dead'

While the Great Barrier Reef is far from healthy, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.

Published Oct 14, 2016

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA
Scientists have officially declared the Great Barrier Reef to be dead.

On October 11, 2016, Outside Magazine Online published a piece titled “Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 Million BC–2016),” which used the obituary format as a vehicle to describe the perilously fragile state of the Great Barrier Reef — the world's largest coral reef system that lies off the coast of Queensland, Australia — in the face of increasing sea surface temperatures and ocean acidity. The obit opened with the statement that "The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old."

This bleak assessment was a response to a number of different reports describing the extent of a massive coral bleaching event from earlier in 2016. Coral bleaching, as defined by Australia's National Coral Bleaching Task Force:

occurs when abnormal environmental conditions, like heightened sea temperatures cause corals to expel tiny photosynthetic algae, called ‘zooxanthellae’. The loss of these colourful algae causes the corals to turn white, and ‘bleach’. Bleached corals can recover if the temperature drops and zooxanthellae are able to recolonise them, otherwise the coral may die.

In March 2016, the Coral Bleaching task force, a joint effort between members of numerous educational and governmental research organizations, released a preliminary report that concluded that a section of the Great Barrier Reef was "experiencing the worst mass bleaching event in its history":

Aerial surveys of more than 500 coral reefs from Cairns to Papua New Guinea reveal that the most pristine section of the Great Barrier Reef is currently experiencing the worst, mass bleaching event in its history, with the overwhelming majority of reefs being ranked in the most severe bleaching category.

In May 2016, the Australian non-profit research group Climate Council also released a report that offered similar dire information:

The latest surveys indicate that 93% of the individual reefs in the GBR have suffered some degree of bleaching, with reefs in the north the most severely affected. Australia’s marine biodiversity, and the jobs and economic prosperity that the reef supports, is under grave threat.

This report also warned that similar events would be more frequent in the face of higher global temperatures:

Moreover, climate change is very likely to make the extreme ocean temperatures that caused this year’s event occur every two years during March by 2034. Extreme coral bleaching will become the new normal unless serious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are achieved.

Adding to this grim outlook, a survey of the extent and severity of coral bleaching between March and June 2016 conducted by the Australian Government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and released on 13 October 2016 found that:

22 per cent of coral on the Reef died due to the worst mass bleaching event on record. Eighty-five per cent of this mortality occurred in the 600 kilometre stretch between the tip of Cape York and just north of Lizard Island. Overall, the area south of Cairns escaped significant mortality.

While the threats to the Great Barrier Reef are well documented and not controversial amongst the scientific community, no scientist has actually proclaimed the reef (which, in reality, is a massive sprawling collection of organisms) to be "officially dead". It is also unclear what organization or individual would, like a doctor in an ER, have the authority to pronounce a massive ecological community "officially dead.""

In fact, scientists have expressed frustration with the virality of the Outside Magazine piece, arguing that it both misinforms the public and suggests that efforts made to reverse the damage to the reef are fruitless, as the Huffington Post observed:

Russell Brainard, chief of the Coral Reef Ecosystem Program at NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, told HuffPost he expects the article was meant to highlight the urgency of the situation. But those who don’t know any better “are going to take it at face value that the Great Barrier Reef is dead,” he said.

Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, said that he was “not impressed by the [article’s] message that we should give up on the [Great Barrier Reef], or that it is already dead.”

In the same Huffington Post report, Hughes noted that the Outside Magazine piece wasn’t entirely accurate, either:

Additionally, Hughes said, the article is “full of mistakes.” It states that the Great Barrier Reef experienced its first mass-bleaching event in 1981. But Hughes said the first was in 1998. Additionally, the article mentions “the winter of 1997–98,” which of course would have been summer in the southern hemisphere.

Above all, Brainard and Hughes stressed the importance of optimism when it comes to facing such a global crisis. As Brainard wrote in a comment on Outside Magazine’s Facebook post, “this sort of over-to-top story makes the situation much worse by conveying loss of hope rather than a need for global society to take actions to reverse these discouraging downward trends.”

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.

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