Misinterpretations of science are common on the internet. The mock obituary by Rowan Jacobsen entitled “Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 Million BC-2016)” recently spread across social media sites, prompting online users and news sites such as The Sun, The New York Post, and The Indian Express to proclaim that the world’s largest living structure—a 1,400-mile system of coral polyps located off the coast of Queensland in Australia—had finally ceased to exist.
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It covers more than 300,000 square kilometers and consists of more than 3,000 reefs, 600 islands, and 300 coral cays. The Great Barrier Reef has suffered through multiple “mass-bleaching” incidents. As sea temperatures rise due to global warming, algae are producing oxygen at a dangerously high level, leaving the corals with no choice but to eject them. This turns the corals white, and requires them to either acquire new algae – which would only be possible for them if the water temperature returns to normal – or die within mere months.
However, we are very far from an obituary. Scientists have stressed that while the Great Barrier Reef, like most coral structures around the world, is under severe stress, it isn’t dead yet. The obituary was met with horror and disbelief, both by scientists and social media users alike. Exaggerated and inaccurate statements 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. No scientist or organization has declared the Great Barrier Reef to be “officially dead.”
What articles about the reef should convey is that it is critically important that the global community, and Australia in particular, take action to bolster the resilience of the reef and maximize its natural capacity to recover. The reef is no longer as resilient as it once was, and it’s struggling to cope with three bleaching events in just 18 years. There is still a long way to go with regard to turning the tide against the Great Barrier Reef’s destruction, but at least the path to saving it is relatively straightforward. What’s needed is to tackle climate change head-on, improve water quality, and limit the over-exploitation of reefs.
Sarah Noe, Intern