The Great Barrier Reef : We Barely Knew You

We are going to lose our coral reefs within the next century – including the greatest of them all, the Great Barrier Reef. Warming ocean temperatures, coral bleaching, and ocean acidification will kill them. This is without the overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution that already seriously stress them. Some very tolerant and adaptable coral species will probably persist, but the reefs will crumble.

The Great Barrier Reef extends for 1430 miles close to the coast of northeast Australia, with 3000 separate reefs or cays, and hundreds of islands (cairnsdiveadventures.com.au)

The Great Barrier Reef extends for 1430 miles close to the coast of northeast Australia, with 3000 separate reefs or cays, and hundreds of islands (cairnsdiveadventures.com.au)

Coral reef biologists continue to have depressing annual meetings. Individuals, scientists, NGOs and other organizations all continue to search for ways to protect reefs and give them more time to adapt to what lies ahead. But what lies ahead is bleak indeed.

What to do? Just accept it and watch it happen? Find some way to prevent it? Though much has been written about this, Ian McCalman’s new book The Reef is an intriguing contribution.

Historian Iain McCalman book The Reef takes us from Captain Cook's imperial invasion to the impact of current climate change,

Historian Iain McCalman book The Reef takes us from Captain Cook’s imperial invasion to the impact of current climate change,

It is, to start with, a very fine book. It tells the history of our emerging understanding of the Great Barrier Reef through the journals and accounts of 20 people, in 20 chapters, starting with Captain Cook’s trip up the GBR Inner Passage in 1770, one he was lucky to survive with his repaired ship still floating.

Captain Cook on his first trip mapped the coasts of New Zealand and Eastern Australia (gbrexperience.com)

Captain Cook on his first trip mapped the coasts of New Zealand and Eastern Australia (gbrexperience.com)

Then some of the naturalists on board subsequent navigating trips by other ships used the opportunity to get to know the Aborigines and the geology and some of the biology of the reef. The naturalists mainly counted species, all well known long before that by the coastal Aborigines.

Some castaways from ships wrecked on various parts of the reef at the north end near Torres Straight were saved and adopted by Aborigines, and lived to tell their remarkable stories about the people who were radically different from their popular reputation as savage, violent and ignorant cannibals.

And then in the early 1900s came the trained naturalists and scientists who began more serious study of the reef. Maurice Young’s year long expedition in 1929, leading a team of 14 scientists (amazingly for its time, 6 were women) revealed a lot about corals and their commensal and possibly symbiotic algae (known as zooxanthellae).

The colors of coral come from their symbiotic zooxanthellae that are expelled when ocean surface temperatures rise a couple of degrees, bleaching the corals (lovethesepics.com)

The colors of coral come from their symbiotic zooxanthellae that are expelled when ocean surface temperatures rise a couple of degrees, bleaching the corals (lovethesepics.com)

Yonge and the team wrote extensively about the year, drawing attention to the great uniqueness of the GBR – and unintentionally attracted hordes of tourists with all their collateral damage. So close to the mainland, the unprotected reef became stressed by resorts, pollution, uncontrolled fishing, destructive dynamiting, and growing interest by oil and gas companies.

All of this provoked the increasing concern of the conservationists and ecologists emerging over the past half century. In 1979, after great conflict among the players, the GBR Marine Park was finally created. In 1981 UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site.

McCalman concludes the personal narratives with an account of the naturalist and coral expert, Charlie Veron, who early on recognized the growing threats to coral reefs from climate change. He published his own fine book in 2009 with the sobering title A Reef in Time: the GBR from Beginning to End.

Charlie Veron's book tells the history of the GBR and its imminent end (amazon.com)

Charlie Veron’s book tells the history of the GBR and its imminent end (amazon.com)

At the very end of his book, McCalman tries not to leave us in fatalistic despair about the reef by sharing the anecdotes of some very resilient humans, determined to not give up.

But that is not enough.

The only real hope for any kind of coral reef survival is rapid reduction of CO2 emissions. We need to dispel the myths that prevent the US, Canada and other nations from taking action. And we need to nourish plausible new ideas, like the cap-and-dividend proposal of US Congressman Chris Van Hollen which even libertarians seem to like.

But all of this has happened far too quickly. Just under three centuries will have passed from our ‘discovery’ of the GBR to its probable destruction at our hands.

We thought we would have more time together.

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