The Great Barrier Reef is dying. Why does nobody seem to care?

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We seem to be wilfully blind when it comes to nature. Right now, Australia is in the grip of an unprecedented environmental disaster. The largest living structure on Earth, the Great Barrier Reef, is mortally sick. Across hundreds of miles of ocean, from Papua New Guinea and all the way southwards along the east coast of Australia, the reef is dying. Famously, the GBR is the only living structure visible from space – almost two thousand miles long and about the size of Germany. It’s suffering what the scientists call ‘bleaching’, a process where corals eject the algae that give them their bright colours, and turn white. They do it when they suffer stress, most commonly when the water in which they live warms up by more than 1°C above what they are accustomed to.

Professor Terry Hughes of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, has been flying up and down the reef in a helicopter photographing the damage. Hughes, the most cited coral expert in the world, says: ‘It’s been the saddest research trip of my life. 95 percent of the corals in this formerly pristine region are showing signs of bleaching even from the air.’ In the next few weeks around 50 percent of the bleached corals will probably die

Coral has bleached all across the tropics this year. Something similar happened in 1998. I was living in Seychelles then, and witnessed previously healthy reefs die en masse, leaving expanses of ugly coral rubble where previously there had been undersea gardens filled with exquisite butterfly fish, anemones and sea fans. On sites where I had led dives hundreds of times I would sometimes get lost, unable to spot a single familiar feature. It was like visiting the grave of a friend and for the first time ever, I found being underwater a depressing experience. Ever since, I’ve been messianic in my zeal to get divers and non-divers to worry about coral. But hardly anyone cares.

There’s something quite infantile about our attitude to conservation. Many people seem to base their love of animals on relationships they had with their favourite childhood cuddly toy. Show us a picture of an elephant slaughtered for its tusks or a tiger shot for its spurious medicinal properties and many of us reach for our wallets without batting an eyelid. Pandas, those indolent and rather smelly creatures, have long been a symbol of everything that deserves saving. But the sad truth is that if all the pandas on earth died tomorrow we wouldn’t really miss them in any practical or environmental sense. We might feel guilty for a while, but in practical terms we wouldn’t miss them any more than we have missed the Tasmanian tiger since it was wiped out in the 1930s.

My gripe is that if you care about an organism that is truly critical to billions of people, but it happens to be ugly, or prickly or one that goes about its business largely unseen, then you are really up against it. Corals aren’t good at public relations. They live their lives obscurely. Reefs cover less than 1 percent of the seabed, but more than 1 billion people depend on the fish that live directly upon them. They protect against storms and tidal waves more effectively than any man-made barrier, and infinitely more cheaply too. Over 4,000 species of fish rely on them for feeding and breeding, and they are spawning sites for everything from sea cucumbers and lobsters to manta rays and sharks.

Coral scientists were the first to reach a consensus – following the 1998 bleaching — that man-made warming was the cause. Before the climate change deniers start posting their rage, let me acknowledge that no-one knows just how much of the GBR will die as a result of this devastating bleaching. Corals have undergone mass extinctions in the past. And reef communities do have a remarkable tendency to bounce back, perhaps through genetic selection or by changing the range of species that build the reef over time. But right now, tropical reefs are in a dire state. Many coral scientists think that warming seas and ocean acidification will see most of them gone within 50 years.

The imminent demise of corals isn’t an easy cause to fight. Understanding their biology requires a bit of application. And, like so many things that live in the sea we tend to ignore their peril until it’s too late. As an indicator of what we are doing to our planet, the corals are hard to beat. If only they weren’t so small and complex. And if only they could whimper.

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First published in The Spectator (UK). Tim Ecott is the author of Stealing Water and Neutral Buoyancy: Adventures in a Liquid World.

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9 comments for “The Great Barrier Reef is dying. Why does nobody seem to care?

  1. Bob Flatt
    May 17, 2016 at 4:37 pm

    I live on the Big Island of Hawaii, we had a nasty coral bleach last summer. Perhaps 50% of the area died, some species lost 99% of their individuals, and some species survived pretty well. I’m still coming to terms with the impact on the food chain.

    With the exception of the few months of white coral, almost nobody in the general population noticed much difference. Peripherally aware that something had changed, the most common request this last winter was “help me see the difference between a live coral and a dead one”! Given this, why would we expect that people would care?

    You may find it interesting that for the coral species with the 99% hit, the survivors are clustered together. They are shallow and near (cold) fresh water inflows, nature finds a way; though it is hard to imagine re-population in my lifetime.

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  2. Dirk
    May 17, 2016 at 10:26 pm

    There are many people caring about the reef in Australia. Unfortunately our country isn’t yet prepared to acknowledge the link between the coal we are exporting and the rise in global temperatures. It is a rather short term view but it’s backed by a powerful alliance of the businesses and the workforce that is depending on those jobs.
    The current bleaching event comes on the back of the 4 warmest month globally. Unfortunately it looks like the milk must be spilled first before people are acting.

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  3. May 30, 2016 at 5:48 pm

    I would be interested in seeing some verified local water temperatures posted with articles I have read on this recent coral bleaching issue. I am assuming that is the implied culprit here. If not, Im curious as to what exactly is the change going on over there for all fingers to be pointed at man caused GW, a rather generic term in itself. After all, we all know for over 4 billion years earth’s climate has been in a state of constantly changing. No need to review that given.

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  4. DocVikingo
    June 15, 2016 at 3:14 am

    Australia Will Spend $739 Million to Help Protect Great Barrier Reef

    https://skift.com/2016/06/13/australia-will-spend-739-million-to-help-protect-great-barrier-reef/

    Seems a bit of good news.

    Cheers,

    DocV

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  5. August 6, 2016 at 12:09 am

    Doc – Just go back from a trip and tried to open your link – no go – even found the web address on ‘Bing’ but the page would not open. Am interested in finding the particulars of this bleaching issue but can find nothing. Concrete reasons for bleaching I can’t find, other than the generic ‘global warming’ which is not an answer in itself, IMHO.

    At http://www.climatehotmap.org/global-warming-locations/great-barrier-reef-australia.html I found a discussion declaring water temperatures have increased but gave no actual temperature readings.

    At http://mclean.ch/climate/GBR_sea_temperature.htm I found the following conclusion at the end of a data filled article: “This proxy data from temperature monitoring on Willis Island suggests that sea surface temperatures on the Great Barrier Reef have varied very little over the last seventy-one years and show no sustained periods of significant warming.”

    Hey, I’m not trying to spoil anyones party, just looking for the facts, that is all. Does anyone have any concrete facts on this issue?

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  6. Ally
    August 18, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    People *do* care, but I think the big question is “what can I do about this that will actually have an impact?”

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  7. John Yavorsky
    September 7, 2016 at 8:11 pm

    James Cook University, a public institution in Australia, has censured marine scientist Peter Ridd for “failing to act in a collegial way and in the academic spirit of the university.” Ridd’s offense? He questioned photos that the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority claim show the health of the reef is deteriorating. Reason Magazine, October 2016, page 9. Seems this may be hyped like Al Gores original predictions that were at least 5x present revised models.

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  8. Gail
    September 18, 2016 at 8:26 am

    95% of coral showing signs of bleaching? I dive the GBR regularly. I would dispute that figure!

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  9. Mitch
    November 29, 2016 at 6:05 pm

    Well it seems that you may have some of your answer in the comments. Still looks like people are in denial. Even Scuba Divers who are most certainly conservation minded folk.

    While I have never dove the GBR, I have in the Caribbean and the differences I have noted at the same dive sites just over the last two years are astounding. It’s absolutely certain that reefs are failing across the globe. I’ve seen it in the Caribbean first hand and had it graphically described to me before and after dives in the indo-pacific.

    We absolutely know that higher water temperatures and acidity put great stress on reefs and we also know the symptoms the reef displays as a result of these factors.

    There are significant studies going on around the world and it’s hard for me to understand how the evidence can be denied. You don’t have to look hard to find current studies that show what’s happening and have endeavored to document the events. It’s happening on a global scale and has been happening for the last decade with increasing severity and frequency.

    Here’s just one link and there are many. http://www.globalcoralbleaching.org/

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