Great Barrier Reef—More or Less Gloom
It is painful these days to write about the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). I do so with considerable hesitancy, but a few things recently have again highlighted how much its future means to all of us.
It was pleasing to hear the University of New England has recognised Charlie Veron as one of its distinguished alumni. I first met Charlie in 1973 when we were members of the Royal Society-University of Queensland Expedition to the GBR. He was then commencing his incredible career in coral reef science, and it was a great privilege to be with him in the field. Charlie continues to communicate with great fervor his understanding of what is happening to this wonderland of marine life. I strongly recommend that all concerned about the future of the GBR read of the discoveries and thoughts of J.E.N. Veron (see references below).
It is also pleasing to hear that the Albanese Labor Government is continuing to invest in research in restoration interventions within the GBR and in mitigating pollutant discharges from rivers draining GBR catchments. Questions continue to arise around the effectiveness of such investments given the present and long-term impacts of global warming leading to coral bleaching events and acidification of marine waters. But there can be little doubt that Australian public expect efforts to be made to do what we can to protect values represented by GBR ecosystems. National and international efforts to control emissions must prevent the gloom and doom scenario captured so dramatically by Cathy Willcox in the Sydney Morning Herald (20 October 2022) under the heading “Great Barrier GREEF”.
There are several excellent histories of the GBR that tell the story of “Save the Reef”. They include the book by Bowen and Bowen (2002) and McCalman (2013). They both refer to the work of the famous poet and environmental activist Judith Wright (1977) whose “Coral Battleground” is one of my favourite autobiographical accounts of struggles we encounter in fighting vested interests in the coast and marine world.
I have just read a new history of the GBR by Rohan Lloyd which delves further into some of the more recent aspects of “Saving the Reef” (2022). Charlie Veron notes on the cover that it is a “revealing portrait of Australia’s most valuable natural icon”. It is the product of a PhD in environmental history at James Cook University entitled “Fathoming the Reef: A History of European Perspectives on the Great Barrier Reef from Cook to GBRMPA” (2016 with detailed bibliography). It offers many insights into the two phases of “saving the reef”: the first involving the “battle” against commercial exploitation for mining limestone and oil exploration led by Wright and others: and second the current efforts in the period of the “climate wars”.
Another good read is an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (2 October 2022) by Laura Chung on Lizard Island where the Australian Museum runs a research station. Two remarkable partners, Anne Hoggett and Lyle Vail, have been managing this station for more than 30 years. The station was not there in 1973 when I made a visit. It was here I did my first GBR scuba dive noting in my diary: “most spectacular experience underwater with coral colours and fish variety… the diversity of life is most striking” (in climbing the island I observed a deposit of fine silica sand which I interpreted to be of aeolian origin when sea level was lower; another story!). What the article highlights is the enthusiasm, hopes and concerns of research students at the station. They are documenting the patchy recovery of coral growth bleaching events and cyclone storm damage. It is the fastest growing corals that are bouncing back. This suggests that as climate-induced events become more frequent the diversity of the reef such as I experienced in 1973 will diminish as those species that take longer time to recover will not survive in this area. It is marvelous to know there is a cohort of young scientists hard at work in places like Lizard Island seeking to ensure the survival of these reef ecosystems.
Finally, I would like to take this opportunity of paying tribute to David Hopley who has devoted much of his career to understanding the geomorphology of the GBR. He is not very well. David along with others have summarised much of the geologic and geomorphic history of the reef in their book cited below. His dedication to reef research like many others have taken us on a journey of discovery of this wonderful natural icon that we must find ways to look after.
Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2022. For correspondence about this blog post please email email@example.com