Obituary: Great Barrier Reef is Dead-Mostly Fiction!

Summary of eRumor:

A widely circulated obituary claims that the Great Barrier Reef has died after an impressive 25 million year run.

The Truth:

Scientists have disputed claims that the Great Barrier Reef has died — arguing that the reef is dying, but not dead.

Claims that the Greater Barrier Reef has died can be traced back to an obituary published by Outside magazine in October 2016 under the headline, “Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 Million BC-2016).” The story begins, “The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old.”

The Great Barrier Reef’s obituary documents in formation nearly 25 million years ago, it’s rise to worldwide fame in the 1770s, and its slow demise brought on by climate change-induced bleaching in the later half of the 1900s that (allegedly) led to is death in 2016:

..In 1981, the same year that UNESCO designated the reef a World Heritage Site and called it “the most impressive marine area in the world,” it experienced its first mass-bleaching incident. Corals derive their astonishing colors, and much of their nourishment, from symbiotic algae that live on their surfaces. The algae photosynthesize and make sugars, which the corals feed on. But when temperatures rise too high, the algae produce too much oxygen, which is toxic in high concentrations, and the corals must eject their algae to survive. Without the algae, the corals turn bone white and begin to starve. If water temperatures soon return to normal, the corals can recruit new algae and recover, but if not, they will die in months. In 1981, water temperatures soared, two-thirds of the coral in the inner portions of the reef bleached, and scientists began to suspect that climate change threatened coral reefs in ways that no marine park could prevent.

The report documents additional mass bleaching that occurred in the winters of 1997-98 and 2001-02, and a major bleaching event in 2005-06.  The deathblow came in 2016 when the reef experienced its worst coral die-off yet.  The obituary explains that it’s not clear if the Great Barrier Reef could be saved, but nobody had made a serious effort to do so. In 2016, the Australian government approved the largest coal mine in the country’s history and pressured the United Nations to remove a chapter about the Great Barrier Reef from a report on the impact of climate change on World Heritage sites:

Australia’s Department of the Environment explained the move by saying, “experience had shown that negative comments about the status of World Heritage-listed properties impacted on tourism.” In other words, if you tell people the reef is dying, they might stop coming.

Outdoor magazine is a reputable publication, and scientists haven’t disputed many of the individual facts presented in the Great Barrier Reef’s article. The main premise of the article, however, that the Great Barrier Reef has died, doesn’t appear to be supported by scientific evidence.

There’s no disputing that the Great Barrier Reef is in dire straits. The ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies has reported that up to 93 percent of the reef has been impacted by bleaching:

The final results of extensive aerial and underwater surveys reveal that 93% of the reef has been affected. It’s a mixed picture of very severe, moderate and little damage that changes dramatically from north to south along the 2300km length of the Reef. 

Meanwhile on the west coast of Australia, researchers are also discovering large-scale bleaching caused by elevated temperatures on both sides of the Australian continent. 

“We’ve never seen anything like this scale of bleaching before. In the northern Great Barrier Reef, it’s like 10 cyclones have come ashore all at once,” says Professor Terry Hughes, convenor of the National Coral Bleaching Taskforce that is documenting and studying the event. “Towards the southern end, most of the reefs have minor to moderate bleaching and should soon recover.” 

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority reported in March 2017 that 22 percent of the of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral had actually died from bleaching events, leaving more than three-quarters of it alive.

The Huffington Post quoted leading coral scientists who called claims that the Great Barrier Reef was dead “wildly irresponsible.”

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.

So, while the Great Barrier Reef might be dying, and some stretches of coral have actually died, we’re calling the claim that the Great Barrier Reef has died is mostly fiction.

A real example of the eRumor as it has appeared on the Internet:

Collected on: 03/14/2017