Great Barrier Reef Obituary Goes Viral

By Steve Rusakiewicz, News Writer


Last week, Rowan Jacobsen wrote a solemn, respectful obituary for the world’s largest living structure: The Great Barrier Reef. Jacobsen pays homage to the reef’s unmatched beauty, biodiversity, and rich history. The obituary appeared in Outside magazine, and was a very moving, very powerful piece of writing describing the demise of the reef, but the scientific community was dismayed by the popularity of this article. Their feelings stem primarily from the fact that the Great Barrier Reef is not, in fact, dead just yet.

The greatest, most imminent threat facing the Great Barrier Reef is coral bleaching. This occurs when surrounding water temperatures increase to the point that the algae living on the coral surface begin overproducing oxygen. This excess oxygen is toxic to the coral, and so the coral will respond by ejecting the algae from its surface. Without the algae providing the coral with a steady food supply, the coral soon turns white and, if temperatures do not decrease enough to allow the algae to return, the coral dies. According to the Australian Research Council (ARC), only 68 of 911 reefs surveyed this year were completely unaffected by bleaching. As dire as this news is, scientists urge the global community not to prematurely pronounce death upon the reef.

Kim Cobb, a professor from the Georgia Tech School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences told the Los Angeles Times: “For those of us in the business of studying and understanding what coral resilience means, the [obituary] very much misses the mark.” The LA Times continued a Q&A interview with Ms. Cobb in which she explained how many people fail to understand that bleached coral is not dead coral, and why bleaching occurs in the first place. Despite 2015-2016 witnessing the worst bleaching event to affect the Great Barrier Reef, Cobb remains optimistic that the reef will not die. Citing her own experiences researching distressed coral reefs in the Christmas Islands, Cobb says she believes there is more resilience built into coral reef systems than can be fully understood right now, and remains confident that the Great Barrier Reef will withstand this crisis and ultimately adapt itself to better withstand future temperature changes.

The Huffington Post also spoke with two leading coral scientists who agreed the Outside article was wildly irresponsible. Russell Brainard, chief of the Coral Reef Ecosystem Program at NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, told the Huffington Post that Jacobsen’s article was likely meant to highlight the urgency of the situation the Great Barrier Reef is facing, but due to its compositional design, readers who were not knowledgeable about coral reef systems would likely take the article at face-value and assume the Great Barrier Reef is dead. Brainard’s prediction was proven correct when the Spokesman-Review, in Spokane Washington, published a blog with the headline: “Great Barrier Reef Pronounced Dead by Scientists.”  Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, also told the Post that he was not impressed by Jacobsen’s implications that the Great Barrier Reef ought to be considered dead. He went on to say the obituary was “full of mistakes,” citing such amateur writing errors as incorrectly dating the first mass-bleaching event to affect the reef.

Brainard, Hughes, and Cobb all share a comment sentiment, and that is to realize the importance of optimism when it comes to facing a global crisis. Brainard’s comment to Outside Magazine’s Facebook post captures the reasoning behind this sentiment quite well: “This sort of over-the-top story makes the situation much worse by conveying the loss of hope rather than a need for global society to take actions to reverse these discouraging downward trends.

The viral sharing of this claim and Jacobsen’s obituary prompted a quick response from the fact-checking website declaring the claim: “Scientists have officially declared the Great Barrier Reef to be dead,” false.