Fervor about the health of Australia’s prized Great Barrier Reef reached a fever pitch this week, precipitated by a dramatic eulogy delivered on Tuesday in Outside Magazine, in which author Rowan Jacobsen declared that the reef “passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old.” The essay fueled apanicked response on both blogs and social media, and the reef was trending globally on Twitter shortly thereafter.
But there is some good news to come out of the Outside obituary. The reports of the reef’s health have fallen into a predictable pattern of modern climate journalism: writers argue that it’s totally doomed, while scientists would like to gently remind us that it’s only doomed if we stop caring. So while it sounds like the Great Barrier Reef is slowly dying, it’s not a lost cause.
To gauge how accurate the story was, The Huffington Post interviewedoceanographers about the reef’s health. Russell Brainard, chief of the Coral Reef Ecosystem Program at NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, said that most readers “are going to take it at face value that the Great Barrier Reef is dead,” which is patently untrue. He called the Outside story “wildly irresponsible.”
That’s not to say the reef is, by any means, doing well: About one quarter of the reef has been so damaged by bleaching that it is considered dead—and up to 93 percent of the reef has been impacted by bleaching. Bleaching, for the uninitiated, is a result of rising ocean temperatures, which cause coral to expel the algae living inside their structures and turn a chilling bone-white.
But more damaging than the bleaching is the notion that nothing can be done to save the reef, Brainard said. In fact, if given time to properly cover, bleached coral can heal. In other words: Don’t give up on the Great Barrier Reef just yet.