Ross Clark Ross Clark

How did climate doomsters get the Great Barrier Reef so wrong?

A few decades of data can only tell us so much


We are, of course, in the midst of a ‘climate emergency’ and the ‘sixth mass extinction’ of life on Earth. It is just that one of the iconic victims doesn’t seem to be playing ball just at the moment. As recently as May, environmentalists were warning that the Great Barrier Reef, the 1,500-mile coral structure off the coast of Queensland, was being doomed by warming seas. It was reported to be suffering a ‘mass bleaching’ – where the plants which live on the reef and provide food for it die off. The blame was put on warmer seas. Worse, this was the first mass bleaching event to occur in a ‘La Niña’ year, when the seas off Australia are supposed to be going through a cyclical cooling phase. A gloomy David Wachenfeld, chief scientist of the Great Barrier Reef Authority, told the Guardian at the time that ‘unexpected events are now to be expected. Nothing surprises me more’.

Like the stories of people saved from cremation by a slight twitch at the eleventh hour, its death seems to have been exaggerated

Except something now has surprised those foretelling the end of the Great Barrier Reef. The latest survey of the reef by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, which was undertaken in May, just as the Guardian report was published, reveals that coral cover has not only recovered but across two-thirds of the reef it is now at its highest level in 36 years of observations. The speed of the recovery of the coral is remarkable; in 2016 the entire reef was declared dead in an obituary published in the environmental magazine Outside. But, like the stories of people saved from cremation by a slight twitch at the eleventh hour, its death seems to have been exaggerated.

Not, of course, that the environmental movement can quite bring itself to celebrate the result of the latest survey.

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