A sensationalized obituary for the Great Barrier Reef, written by Rowan Jacobsen, went viral after its publication in Outside Magazine last Tuesday, leading scientists to clarify that the massive coral reef is very much alive, though gravely threatened. While the piece may have been intended as satire, it is left ambiguous for readers. It begins by referring to the reef in past tense, saying “The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old,” setting the tone for the rest of the piece, which is written as an obituary.
While the piece highlights the gravity of the real dangers facing the reef, scientists have expressed concern that many readers will take the article at face value, and consider the reef an already lost cause.
While the full extent of the damage to the reef from El Nino and climate change is debatable, scientists agree the reef is not totally destroyed, and that most likely, it can still be saved. In April, the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies reported that a recent bleaching event, caused by rising water temperatures, had affected as much as 93 percent of the reef. However, new preliminary findings published Thursday by Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority showed that only 22 percent of the coral died in the bleaching event. While this is still a staggering loss, it leaves more than three quarters of the reef alive and in need of preservation efforts.
Coral bleaching is a process in which a stressor, such as rising water temperatures, causes coral to expel symbiotic algae living in their tissues, resulting in the coral turning white. While a coral bleaching event does not automatically kill coral, it is a stressor that often increases mortality rates.
The reef is considered the world’s largest living structure, visible even from space, of the coast of Queensland in northeastern Australia. It extends over 2,300 kilometers, composed of hundreds of islands and coral reefs including 600 different types of coral. The ecosystem provides a home for a number of other maritime species, including sharks, starfish, sea turtles, dolphins, and whales, among many others. Ten percent of the world’s fish species can be found within the Great Barrier Reef.
Despite the Outside piece’s rhetorical approach of declaring the reef already dead, it also recommends donations to the Ocean Ark Alliance, a non-profit organization which focuses on marine education and the preservation of coral reefs and coastal ecosystems.