The coral bleaching event taking place in northern parts of the Barrier Reef provides another example of how we’re not being given the whole story when it comes to anything climate change related.
As you’ll soon see, this is yet another climate change story with plenty of emotion, funny numbers, nonsensical comparisons, a ‘worst ever’ proclamation… and several missing key facts.
Worst ever (again)
Wherever you read it, the story revolves around professor Terry Hughes and his ‘expert’ opinion (which, of course, we should unquestioningly accept) that the Barrier Reef is experiencing the worst coral bleaching event ‘on record’. The story then quickly descends into a farcical and political climate change sermon loaded with ‘expert terminology’:
Many of the most pristine parts of the Great Barrier Reef have been ‘fried‘, according to a reef expert. Professor Terry Hughes, the convenor of the National Coral Bleaching Taskforce, says the World Heritage site is in the grip of the worst coral bleaching event on record.
‘The north has fried,’ he told AAP on Tuesday, after what he called the saddest research trip of his life. ‘This is an ongoing, slow-motion train wreck.’
Prof Hughes fears major bleaching events, driven by climate change, are now beginning to occur more frequently than the decade it takes the reef to recover. He said the federal government was failing to link its decisions – including scrapping a price on carbon and support for coal mining – to the health of the reef.
‘I hope these scientific findings will convince the Commonwealth government to link its greenhouse gas policies to the vulnerability of the reef to climate change,’ he said.
Prof Hughes said the central part of the reef had not been as badly affected, while the southern stretches had dodged a bullet thanks to a rain depression resulting from Cyclone Winston, which kept water temperatures there cooler.
As you can see, the northern part of the Barrier Reef is now officially the ‘most pristine’, while the central and southern areas – which include the Whitsunday Islands, Cairns and Port Douglas – are junkyards you probably wouldn’t even dump your nuclear waste in. (What would travellers and tourists know about the best parts of the reef anyway?).
Why would you want to see a map?
I know what you’re thinking: a map showing the affected areas of the reef would be really handy right about now. I agree. Here’s the most recent official one procured from Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority:
Of course, the media and climate change activists prefer that you see pictures of damaged coral from Thailand to demonstrate the health of the Barrier Reef – so don’t expect to see any maps from them any time soon.
Apples and oranges
The following fun facts have also been doing the rounds in this story:
Of 520 reefs surveyed between Cairns and Papua New Guinea in recent days, just four
appeared to be untouched by bleaching.
And 95 per cent of the reefs have been ranked in the two severest categories of bleaching, well above the 18 per cent that were in that category when the same sites were inspected during the 2002 event.
Firstly, have another look at the above map and decide for yourself whether it’s accurate to say that 95% of the reefs between Cairns and PNG are in the ‘two severest categories of bleaching’…
Actually, on second thought, I suppose you could say this is accurate – as long as you’re willing to define ‘moderate’ as being ‘second most severe’. However, if you accept this, then you would also have to accept the statement that ‘nearly 100% of the reefs between Cairns and PNG involve the two least severest categories of bleaching. Needless to say, none of this is helpful when it comes to the issue at hand. Of course, that didn’t stop Sky News and professor Hughes did it?
Secondly, when comparing this year’s bleaching event to the one in 2002, why is the focus only on the northern part of the reef – when the two events affected completely different parts? For reference, here’s what happened in 1998 and 2002:
With this in mind, why hasn’t a similar percentage comparison been made regarding the central and southern sections of the reef? And why haven’t comparative figures for the entire reef been provided?
Aren’t we trying to declare this thing the worst ever?
Bleaching in context
The fact that bleaching has historically been responsible for around 10% of the Barrier Reef’s coral losses since 1985 has also been conveniently omitted in this story:
However coral losses on the reef between 1995 and 2009 were largely offset by growth of new corals. An overall analysis of coral loss found that coral populations on the Great Barrier Reef had declined by 50.7% from 1985 to 2012, but with only about 10% of that decline attributable to bleaching, and the remaining 90% caused about equally by tropical cyclones and by predation by crown-of-thorns starfishes.
As for the state of the Barrier Reef from 2012-16, have fun trying to find any comparative numbers. In any event, the reef’s condition can’t have been too bad given that UNESCO decided against declaring it as being ‘in danger’ in July 2015.
Some questions for the professor and the media
In typical fashion, there are basic questions that have not been contemplated in this story:
- Given that the the last eight bleaching events occurred in 1980, 1982, 1992, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2016, why has professor Hughes said that bleaching is now beginning to occur ‘more frequently’? (Yes, the last one was 10 years ago).
- Why has professor Hughes declared that this is the ‘worst coral bleaching event on record’ before completion of the surveying process?
Scientists were yet to identify a southern boundary for the worst of the bleaching, but more surveys between Cairns and Townsville this week could determine that.
- Why do bleaching events tend to occur at the same time there’s an El Nino event? (NB: funnily enough, we’re currently going through a severe El Nino event).
- Why won’t the professor provide impact numbers for the whole Barrier Reef? (NB: in 1998, 42% of the entire reef suffered some form of bleaching. In 2002, the number was 54% – with both events having 18% ‘strongly bleached’).
Climate change – is there anything it can’t do?
The claims made by people like professor Hughes go something like this – carbon dioxide makes up about 0.04% of the Earth’s atmosphere (NB: people like the professor tend to prefer saying ‘400 parts per million’). Humankind’s wicked ways have impacted this amount by about 4%. The 0.0016% of carbon dioxide in question that humans have sinfully added to the Earth’s atmosphere has caused a runaway greenhouse effect. All this hot air (and I mean that in every sense of the word) has significantly warmed the ocean and warm oceans are killing coral. The Barrier Reef is therefore doomed unless we pay carbon taxes.
For some fun at home, take a heater into your bathroom, fill up the bath tub with cold water and close the door. Without electrocuting yourself, turn the heater on to maximum power and see how long it takes for the bath water to increase in temperature. By all means, feel free to use a thermometer. Just before you die of boredom, repeat the experiment – this time, put the heater away, empty the bath tub and then refill it with hot water. Then, sit back and experience what happens to the air temperature in the room.
I know, I know… wow.
Professor Hughes should really stick to his government funded job of looking at all the pretty coral instead of engaging with the media and in politics. Every news outlet that ran this story along the above lines should also be utterly ashamed.