Yesterday 895,000 Australians (and this one Kiwi) woke up to the headline “HOPES FADE IN COPENHAGEN, RISE ON THE REEF” in a national newspaper. As one who is always up for a bit of optimism I began reading… but by the second line my hopes were somewhat dashed: “Scientists ‘crying wolf’ over coral”.
This front page story reported the views of one (I repeat ONE) scientist, Peter Ridd, a physicist from James Cook University, who believes that ecologists and biologists studying the Great Barrier Reef are guilty of exaggerating threats to the reef, such as increased sedimentation, crown of thorns starfish, pollution, and temperature-induced damage called bleaching. Ridd argues that the reef is still in ‘good health’ despite public attention being drawn to these individual threats over recent years, thus affecting the credibility of marine scientists, particularly with respect to current concerns about the susceptibility of coral reefs to climate change.
It seems to me that The Australian has gone out of its way to turn this scientific debate, which is essentially one marine scientist disagreeing with a score of others, into another example of how ‘dodgy scientists’ are conspiring to delude the public into thinking that climate change is a real phenomenon.
A more in depth article further inside the newspaper “How the reef became blue again” does quite a good job of describing recent research findings by scientists at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, regarding the ability of corals to recover from bleaching events caused by increases in water temperature. However, you have to dig really deep to get to what I think is the part that is deserving of the headline:“Ocean acidification is another matter, however. This lesser-known product of climate change is a greater danger to the reef by Ridd’s assessment. It happens as the ocean absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, altering its pH value. Although surface sea temperatures are rising fastest in tropical regions, the threat of acidification comes from the higher latitudes, where the colder water takes in CO2 more easily.
The theory is that when atmospheric CO2 reaches between 480ppm and 500ppm, the warmer water lapping coral reefs will cease to be a barrier to acidification: even a small change is thought to spell trouble for calcifying organisms such as corals, making it more difficult for them to make the skeleton structures that in turn build reefs.”
If you would like to find out more about this incredibly scary phenomenon, I posted a rather thought-provoking film on it a couple of months ago. Even Peter Ridd thinks that ocean acidification is the single greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef – but only those few of the 895,000 that got close to the end of the 2 page article would be aware of this!
Are the public so supersaturated with climate change stories that the media are having to infer scientific controversy to get the attention of the public? Quite possibly. How sad.