Fish swimming in the Great Barrier Reef. Photo Credit: Clipart.com.
Late last week, social media erupted with news that the Great Barrier Reef was dead. Science NetLinks is pleased to announce that this is not true. While no scientist would say the Great Barrier Reef is in excellent health, the recent report of its death was, as Mark Twain wrote, an exaggeration.
The source of the rumor can be traced to an October 11 story in Outside Magazine, a publication for outdoors enthusiasts. Framed as an obituary, the cover story proclaimed the death of the World Heritage Site, beginning, "The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old." Written by Rowan Jacobsen, the piece is an example of hyperbole, a literary form of exaggeration not intended to be taken as truth.
Located off the coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef, which consists of a linked system of nearly 3,000 coral reefs and 900 coral islands, is the largest living structure on Earth. It spans roughly 133,000 square miles in area, approximately half the size of Texas, and is home to 9,000 species of marine organisms, including more than 100 that are threatened species.
The building block upon which the Great Barrier Reef is centered is coral, a small marine invertebrate that lives in colonies and that contains in its tissues tiny algae called zooxanthellae with whom it has a mutualistic relationship. (That means that each partner directly benefits from the other's existence.) While the coral offers the algae protection and compounds they need for photosynthesis, the zooxanthellae, in addition to providing coral with its color, help the coral remove waste, produce oxygen, and supply the coral with glucose, glycerol, and amino acids as a source of food.
Unfortunately, when ocean waters are even a few degrees warmer than usual for an extended period of time, the algae also produce a toxic substance, which causes the coral to evict them. This leaves the coral colorless and sickened, in a process scientists call coral bleaching, because the coral's white skeleton can now be seen through its translucent tissue. While it is possible for coral to survive bleaching, it requires a particularly hearty organism to do so and happens infrequently. While occasional instances of coral bleaching had been known to affect a few individual organisms, mass coral bleaching affecting entire reef systems first was recorded in 1979. The Great Barrier Reef is in the midst of its third, and longest, coral bleaching outbreak since 1998. This most recent incident has killed 22% of the reef's coral population and affects 93% of the reef. The problems the Great Barrier Reef is facing are real and dire.
Bleached Staghorn Coral by Matt Kieffer. Licensed under CC by-SA 2.0, via Flickr.
That said, while it would be fair to say the Great Barrier Reef is dying, it is too early to write its obituary. Scientists, activists, and politicians are all working hard to prevent the reef's death, but significant action is needed, and soon, in order to prevent Jacobsen's hyperbole from becoming reality.
If you believed the Outside story, don't feel bad; you aren't alone. Even some news outlets who ought to have known better were taken in by the article's click-bait title and flowery language. Sometimes it can be very hard to tell whether you should trust a source. The American Press Institute, a nonprofit that works with newspapers, suggests six questions that can help you figure out who is trustworthy. In the case of the Outside story, the lack of named sources for the claim is a sure sign that the story is incomplete. If this story had been true, a group of scientists or politicians would have made an official declaration and the story would have included it so you could look that up.
Similarly, in the blog post Understanding Reseach Studies, you can look at a published research report in order to learn about the components one should contain. In The Mozart Effect lesson, you can explore what happens when the media and/or the public discover a scientific study and extrapolate the message into "truth" without the benefit of further study, which can lead to public policy being based on a faulty or unreplicated study.
If this controversy has inspired you to learn more about the Great Barrier Reef, you can't go wrong by starting with David Attenborough's Great Barrier Reef. Featuring immersive experiences, cutting-edge science, and short films, this interactive website will motivate you to take action. You might also check out Coral Reef Connections and listen to the Science Update episode Iconic Ecosystems for more information about the Great Barrier Reef.
If you want to find out more about coral reefs in general, Science NetLinks offers several resources: The Last Reef, an IMAX film looking at the dangers of acidification on some of the world's remaining coral reefs; Coral Reef Adventure Fun Zone, which follows the real-life adventures of ocean explorers and underwater filmmakers; and 2010 BioBlitz BobCast 3: Reef Trip, a vlog documenting a trip to a turtlegrass bed and coral reef in Biscayne National Park. Listen to the Ships to Reefs episode of Science Update to hear how sinking old warships creates new habitats for marine species. Finally, check out Take the Heat, from Science in the Classroom, in which you'll find an advanced, annotated look at the 2014 Science article, "Mechanisms of reef coral resistance to future climate change." It includes the opportunity to do data analysis on the cited research.
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