You would have to have a heart of stone not to chuckle at the coral contortions endured by many journalists as they wrote through gritted keyboards that the little critters are growing back in record numbers on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). The initial reaction seems to have been one of shock. It cannot be true – Sir David Attenborough had assured us that the GBR was in “grave danger” of disappearing within decades because of climate change. Far from disappearing, the coral is now at its highest cover level since reef-wide monitoring began 36 years ago.
The news has yet to feature on the BBC climate page. The Corporation employs numerous environment correspondents, but the only report on its news site had a Sydney, Australia byline and appeared on the general science page. Curiously there was a similar absence of reporting earlier this year, when it was learnt that the South Pole had recently had its coldest six month winter since records began.
For the last three days, the BBC has been leading its climate coverage with a pile of emotional tosh arguing that scientists are not taking seriously enough the possibility of catastrophic climate change outcomes, “including human extinction”. According to the lead author, an international relations specialist, the “closest attempts” to address this have come from popular science books such as The Uninhabitable Earth, “and not from mainstream science research”. This last remark prompted the science writer Jo Nova to comment: “Essentially they are telling us we need to panic because there are no scientific papers telling us to panic.”
I digress, back to actual science and the coral reefs. Much of the mainstream commentary picked up on the steer from the Australian Institute for Marine Science (AIMS) that growth had come from the faster-growing corals. One might well comment, it would, wouldn’t it. In addition, there have been further outbreaks of bleaching. Again, the science writer Jo Nova notes that bleaching has probably occurred for millions of years, “there were just not many scuba divers to record it”. We ought to be shocked if corals did not have a full toolkit to cope with rapid changes, she said. She added that this latest 2021/22 study from AIMS, “was an absolute blockbuster in terms of busting the myth that corals are on the verge of extinction”.
Reef expert Peter Ridd said the GBR has proven to be a vibrant and healthy ecosystem. This should not be a surprise, he noted, since there are few human pressures on the reef, and it is well protected. “It is also unreasonable to expect that the small temperature rise over the last century (1°C) will have caused much impact, especially as it is well known that most corals grow faster in warmer waters,” he added.
In his view, the AIMS data show the reef is a robust system with rapidly fluctuating coral cover. We must expect coral cover to fall sometime in the future. In a comment, perhaps aimed at Attenborough, he said we should remember, “it is almost certainly natural, and not allow the merchants of doom to depress the children”.
Peter Ridd is a physicist and has researched the GBR since 1984. He was the former head of the Marine Geophysical Laboratory at James Cook University in Queensland. In 2018 he was fired for pointing out quality assurance deficiencies in reef-science institutions. In a recent note published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation he charged that over the last few years, AIMS “has effectively hidden the good news on coral cover”. Much of the recent doomsday coral copy from journalists would appear to reflect this agenda.
From 2017, AIMS stopped publishing the average coral cover for the GBR, and only issued disaggregated figures for three sectors, northern, central and southern. But figures are available, and Ridd has compiled the above graph for aggregated coral cover over the entire reef. He uses AIMS figures for 1986-2017, and his own from 2017. It shows in a dramatic fashion the spectacular growth since the low point around 2016, when the reef was badly affected by natural depredations arising from a powerful El Niño event. Coral reefs are home to many species and AIMS defines 30-50% cover as a ‘high value’ based on historical surveys. Ridd reports that current cover is almost 34%, with a small margin of error. In his view, only by seeing all the data aggregated for the entire reef can the “exceptional” state of the coral be appreciated. Ridd feels it is “surprising” that AIMS no longer provides an average coral cover for the entire GBR, because it had previously made far reaching claims about the poor state based on reef-wide average data.
In fact he went on to note that when coral cover hit a low point around 10% in 2011 after being devastated by major cyclones, AIMS authors, in a paper widely quoted in the media, said “coral cover in the central and southern regions of the GBR is likely to decline to 5-10% by 2022”.
Ridd concludes that by no longer publishing an average figure for the entire reef, AIMS “has obscured the good news for 2022, and drawn a veil over their inaccurate prediction of a decade ago”.
Polar bears increasing, forests of coral springing up, global warming not happening, even Arctic ice seems to be making a small comeback. Is there no end to all this bad news for green agenda-driven journalists?
Chris Morrison is the Daily Sceptic’s Environment Editor.