On 11 October 2016 this obituary for the Great Barrier Reef written by Rowan Jacobson of Outside Magazine went viral and outraged scientists.
It’s worth reading the controversial ode to one of the earth’s most spectacular natural wonders, just to focus our attention.
The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old. For most of its life, the reef was the world’s largest living structure, and the only one visible from space. It was 1,400 miles long, with 2,900 individual reefs and 1,050 islands. In total area, it was larger than the United Kingdom, and it contained more biodiversity than all of Europe combined. It harbored 1,625 species of fish, 3,000 species of mollusk, 450 species of coral, 220 species of birds, and 30 species of whales and dolphins. Among its many other achievements, the reef was home to one of the world’s largest populations of dugong and the largest breeding ground of green turtles.
Jacobson’s words are understandable when report after report spells out the devastating decline of the Reef. Since December 2015, the Great Barrier Reef has been exposed to above average sea surface temperatures, due to the combined effects of climate change and a strong El Niño. This has led to mass coral bleaching in 2016 and an estimated 29 per cent loss of shallow water coral Reef-wide. In addition to severe bleaching affecting over half the Reef since 2016, 28% of the Reef was in the path of cyclone Debbie in March this year when parts of it suffered up to 97% coral loss.
In April this year a James Cook University (JCU) in Australia news release said two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef has been hit by back-to-back mass coral bleaching:
“For the second time in just 12 months, scientists have recorded severe coral bleaching across huge tracts of the Great Barrier Reef after completing aerial surveys along its entire length. In 2016, bleaching was most severe in the northern third of the Reef, while one year on, the middle third has experienced the most intense coral bleaching.”
“The combined impact of this back-to-back bleaching stretches for 1,500 km (900 miles), leaving only the southern third unscathed,” says Prof. Terry Hughes, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, who undertook the aerial surveys in both 2016 and 2017.
Last month Australian experts finally admitted that the Great Barrier can no longer be saved. At an Expert Panel held in Brisbane, experts agreed that “in our lifetime and on our watch, substantial areas of the Great Barrier Reef and the surrounding ecosystems are experiencing major long-term damage which may be irreversible unless action is taken now.”
In their communique, the Panel concluded that coral bleaching since early 2016 has changed the Reef fundamentally expressing their great concern about the future of the Reef, and the communities and businesses that depend on it, adding that hope still remains for maintaining ecological function over the coming decades.
The last sentence is ominous. The Reef’s ecological function has been declining for years and continues to decline rapidly. It hasn’t been maintained. How does hope to maintain it achieve anything different? That’s not a strong statement of intent.
Looks like Jacobson’s obituary wasn’t so premature after all.