The ‘Obituary’ for the Great Barrier Reef

A 1996 “obituary” for the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) may have been called premature at the time. But the urgency to protect the ocean landmark from climate change has only intensified years later.

The reef was pronounced “dead” in a piece published by Outside magazine in October of that year, with global warming named as the cause of death — but exacerbated by government inaction. According to the piece:

No one knows if a serious effort could have saved the reef, but it is clear that no such effort was made. On the contrary, attempts to call attention to the reef’s plight were thwarted by the government of Australia itself, which in 2016, shortly after approving the largest coal mine in its history, successfully pressured the United Nations to remove a chapter about the 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.

The story cited the work of researcher John Veron, a former chief scientist for the Australian Institute of Marine Science, who by that point had won acclaim for both his lectures and writing on the deterioration of the reef due to coral bleaching caused by the warming climate since 1980. He told the Australian Saturday Paper that same year:

The reality is that the whole northern section is trashed. Up near Lizard Island there’s hardly any coral at all. It looks like a war zone. It’s heartbreaking. And we like to think that the southern part has escaped. It hasn’t – it’s just not as bad. It was also saved by an unusual weather pattern – a normal monsoon set in against the El Niño. But there’ll be another in four to seven years, and each cycle is more severe than the last.

The newspaper also corroborated Outside’s reporting, noting that the work of researchers Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and Will Steffen (for a report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO) was edited specifically because of Australian government interference:

The Department of Environment had objected to all references to Australia, and demanded they be removed from the report. UNESCO obliged. Neither Steffen nor Hoegh-Guldberg were notified.

The department defended its actions to Guardian Australia last week, saying: “The department was concerned that the framing of the report confused two issues — the World Heritage status of the sites and risks arising from climate change and tourism.”

A separate group, the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, also reported extensive damage to the reef from coral bleaching — the loss of algae from coral, which causes it to turn white.

“We have now flown over 911 individual reefs in a helicopter and light plane, to map out the extent and severity of bleaching along the full 2300km length of the Great Barrier Reef,” said the group’s director, Professor Terry Hughes. “Of all the reefs we surveyed, only 7 percent (68 reefs) have escaped bleaching entirely. At the other end of the spectrum, between 60 and 100 percent of corals are severely bleached on 316 reefs, nearly all in the northern half of the Reef.”

However, Hughes also told the Huffington Post that he was “not impressed” by Outside’s description of the reef, explaining that large portions of its southern area were not damaged by a bleaching incident in 2016.

“We can and must save the Great Barrier Reef ― it supports 70,000 jobs in reef tourism,” Hughes said, adding, “The message should be that it isn’t too late for Australia to lift its game and better protect the GBR, not we should all give up because the GBR is supposedly dead.”

The Australian government did offer a more positive report in July 2021, saying that coral cover had recovered thanks to a lack of bleaching incidents and other disturbances during the two previous years, thanks to the rapid growth of Acropora corals.

“We found once these dominant corals re-established after disturbances, they hit a period of exponential growth which has led to the increases we see this year,” said Dr. Mike Emslie, who led a team for the Australian Institute of Marine Science monitoring the reef. “However, while they are fast to grow, they are often the first to go – they are susceptible to cyclones, coral bleaching and are the favourite food for crown-of-thorns starfish.

“Because of these vulnerabilities and likelihood of more climate-related severe weather events, future disturbances may result in rapid decline on these reefs.”

Emslie’s fears were borne out in March 2022, when researchers found that the reef was experiencing a sixth bleaching event driven by a La Niña weather pattern, affecting 60 percent of the corals on the reef.

“It is too early to know the level of long-term damage that the bleaching has caused, because many corals will recover once thermal stress declines,” the Great Barrier Reef Foundation said in a statement. “However, based on what’s happened in the last five years, we would expect to see severe coral mortality in the shallowest regions of the worst affected reefs.”

An August 2022 report by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) found that coral cover in the Reef’s southern region decreased between August 2021 and May 2022, from 38 percent to 34 percent, even as it increased in their northern and central regions to 36 percent and 33 percent, respectively — their highest amounts since AIMS began monitoring coral cover for the Reef in 1986.

That the March 2022 bleaching event was fueled by a La Niña pattern, said AIMS chief executive officer Dr. Paul Hardisty, was part of what he called “uncharted territory.”

“Every summer the Reef is at risk of temperature stress, bleaching and potentially mortality and our understanding of how the ecosystem responds to that is still developing,” he said in a statement accompanying the report.

Update 4/22/2022, 3:53 p.m. PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. — ag

Update 8/5/2022, 8:39 a.m. PST: Updated to reflect new findings by the Australian Institute of Marine Science. — ag