Great Barrier Reef Obituary Goes Viral, To The Horror Of Scientists

"The message should be that it isn’t too late ... not we should all give up."

14/10/2016 11:22 PM AEDT | Updated 1 hour ago
Holger Leue via Getty Images
Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia.

Dead and dying are two very different things.

If a person is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, their loved ones don’t rush to write an obituary and plan a funeral. Likewise, species aren’t declared extinct until they actually are.

In a viral article entitled “Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 Million BC-2016),” however, writer Rowan Jacobsen proclaimed ― inaccurately and, we can only hope, hyperbolically ― that Earth’s largest living structure is dead and gone.

“The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness,” reads the sensational obituary, published Tuesday in Outside Magazine. “It was 25 million years old.”

There’s no denying the Great Barrier Reef is in serious trouble, having been hammered in recent years by El Niño and climate change. In April, scientists from the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies found that the most severe coral bleaching event on record had impacted 93 percent of the reef.

But as a whole, it is not dead. Preliminary findings published Thursday of Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority surveys show 22 percent of its coral died from the bleaching event. That leaves more than three quarters still alive ― and in desperate need of relief.

Two leading coral scientists that The Huffington Post contacted took serious issue with Outside’s piece, calling it wildly irresponsible.

Stay informed with the latest news and video. Download HuffPost’s news app on iOS or Android.

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.

And judging by comments on social media, many did just that. 

The Spokesman-Review, in Spokane, Washington, fueled the myth Thursday, when it published a blog with the headline: “Great Barrier Reef pronounced dead by scientists.”

Brainard told HuffPost the recent bleaching event was a “severe blow” that resulted in serious mortality. Still, “we’re very far from an obituary,” he said.

WWF Australia/XL Catlin Seaview Survey
Coral bleaching at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest reef system, is located off the coast of Queensland, Australia, and extends more than 1,400 miles. It consists of some 3,000 individual reefs and is home to more than 100 islands.

Of the 911 reefs ARC surveyed this year, only 68 — 7 percent — escaped bleaching, while between 60 and 100 percent of corals were found to be severely bleached on 316 reefs. Coral bleaching is a phenomenon in which stressed corals expel algae and turn white. If not given time to recover, bleached corals can perish.

In the obituary, Jacobsen gives a detailed history of how the Great Barrier Reef formed and casts blame upon the Australian government for its ultimate demise. 

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.

What Jacobsen doesn’t address is what happens when you tell the world ― jokingly or not ― that the reef has completely perished.

Brainard said the scientific community has become increasingly concerned that overstatements about the state of our planet, like the one Jacobsen made, can cause people to lose hope. They may start to think, “If there’s nothing that can be done, let’s not do anything and move onto other issues,” he said.

He compared the Outside Magazine article to someone chopping down 50 percent of the trees in a forest and telling you the forest is gone. 

If it’s an attempt at satire, you wouldn’t know it at first glance. Nowhere is the story labeled as an opinion piece. There’s also nothing in the body that backs up the misleading headline and subhead. 

Outside Magazine did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. And contact information for the author was not listed.

XL Catlin Seaview Survey via Associated Press
This photo on the left shows bleached coral at Lizard Island in March. The second image, taken in May, shows the same formation dead.

Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, said in an email to HuffPost that he was “not impressed by the [article’s] message that we should give up on the [Great Barrier Reef], or that it is already dead.”

“We can and must save the Great Barrier Reef ― it supports 70,000 jobs in reef tourism,” he said. “Large sections of it (the southern half) escaped from the 2016 bleaching, and are in reasonable shape. 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.”

Additionally, Hughes said, the article is “full of mistakes.” It states that the Great Barrier Reef experienced its first mass-bleaching event in 1981. But Hughes said the first was in 1998. Additionally, the article mentions “the winter of 1997–98,” which of course would have been summer in the southern hemisphere.

Above all, Brainard and Hughes stressed the importance of optimism when it comes to facing such a global crisis. As Brainard wrote in a comment on Outside Magazine’s Facebook post, “this sort of over-to-top [sic] story makes the situation much worse by conveying loss of hope rather than a need for global society to take actions to reverse these discouraging downward trends.” 

“These natural systems do have some ability to be resilient and bounce back,” he told HuffPost.

That’s not to make light of the situation. Warmer ocean temperatures and climate change have pummeled corals around the globe.

Unlike Brainard and Hughes, Greta Aeby, a coral expert with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii, wonders whether it wasn’t time for such a dramatic, tongue-in-cheek approach. This summer, Aeby said she found herself “literally sobbing” into her facemask as she finished surveying a dead reef at Coconut Island, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

“As a coral biologist who has been working for a decade and a half to understand the reefs problems, and let reef managers and others know what the problems are so they can be addressed, I can tell you it is a very frustrating and heart-breaking job,” she said in an email to HuffPost. “So maybe an article like that is what is needed ... although I doubt if it will really make a difference.”

Whatever you believe about the controversial obituary, one thing is certain: this wonder of the world desperately needs help, or we could see Outside’s prophecy come true.

Also on HuffPost
Great Barrier Reef

More On This Topic