If you’ve been reading The Australian recently, you might think that coral reef science is in some kind of crisis.
The Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper has been attempting to spin the worst coral bleaching event in the reef’s recorded history as a beat-up by environmentalists and high-profile scientists.
The latest instalment came earlier today from the newspaper’s environment editor Graham Lloyd, under the print headline “The bleaching of parts of the reef is dividing the scientific world” and online under the headline “Great barrier battleground over coral bleaching.”
Lloyd seems to be trying to construct a narrative that the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and the subsequent death of about a quarter of all the corals has opened some sort of schism among scientists.
The bleaching, writes Lloyd, has “unleashed long-simmering tensions over the quality of reef research.”
This is, in my view, bollocks [sorry kids].
Lloyd includes three individuals to back up his claims. They have two things in common.
One is that none of them are anywhere close to being actual experts in coral biology.
The second thing Lloyd’s “experts” all have in common is a broad rejection of the science linking dangerous human-caused climate change to fossil fuel burning, something Lloyd does not mention.
Let’s look for a minute at who Lloyd quotes to back up his narrative.
First there is Prof Judith Curry, of Georgia Tech University, who has no peer-reviewed publications at all in relation to coral reefs.
Having a solid body of peer-reviewed research behind you in the relevant scientific field should be the pre-requisite for assigning “expertise”.
Curry is a favourite among climate science deniers for her view that human-caused climate change is a beat up.
Then there is the curious inclusion of Jim Steele, of San Francisco State University. According to that university’s website, Steele is “emeritus” – which means he is retired.
I cannot find a publication listing for Steele, but this biography suggests expertise in biology and, in particular, birds. In 2013, Steele released a book claiming that climate change was natural and not being caused by humans.
Then there is James Cook University’s Prof Peter Ridd, who is not a coral biologist. He has published work on how sediments and waters move around coral reefs, but I am told he has no expertise on the biology of corals.
Lloyd again neglects to mention Ridd’s work on projects to support the construction of fossil fuel export facilities along the Queensland coastline close to the reef.
Nether does he mention Ridd’s tendency towards climate science denialism.
Lloyd does get quotes from one actual expert on coral bleaching – arguably one of the the world’s foremost authorities on the issue, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, of the University of Queensland.
Lloyd includes a discussion of Hoegh-Guldberg’s seminal 1999 paper on coral bleaching which warned that “present and future increases in sea temperature are likely to have severe effects on the world’s coral reefs within 20 – 30 years”.
Hoegh-Guldberg is currently at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Hawaii with a couple of thousand other reef and coral experts. He has read the story in The Australian, and told me:
What is curious for me is that Graham Lloyd chose to speak with Ridd, Curry and Steele, and not the scores of coral experts that are available in Australia and elsewhere.
When you look into the background of each individual, you find that Peter Ridd is a sedimentologist, Judith Curry a climatologist, and Jim Steele – a bird enthusiast who works in the Sierra Nevada – which at last count appears to be a long way from a coral reef.
I don’t think there is a single scientist at this meeting who will support the position taken by sedimentologist Peter Ridd or, for that matter, Curry and Steele. That is pretty telling.
Not exactly your most qualified experts. None of them has published in the peer-reviewed literature on coral bleaching – they are simply not experts.
But in my view, not only did Lloyd choose people who were “simply not experts” but he also missed some key facts and nuance in his scrambled narrative.
For example, Lloyd looks at the issue of calcification rates of corals saying that “one paper claims there has been a 15 per cent decline in calcification rate between 1990 and 2005.”
Lloyd is referring to this 2009 Science paper by Dr Glenn De’ath, of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).
You can see if you follow that link that this paper was corrected by the authors in 2013, to show that calcification rates had actually dropped by a likely 11.4 per cent, rather than 14.1 per cent, as had originally been estimated (not 15 per cent, as Lloyd had written).
Lloyd cites “quality assurance work” carried out by Ridd (and published in the journal Marine Geology) that claimed to have found “two major flaws” in the 2009 De’ath et al paper. One of those flaws had been addressed in the correction, which Lloyd had not mentioned.
Neither had Lloyd mentioned that De’ath et al had actually responded to Ridd’s paper in the same Marine Geology journal and explained why they thought his criticisms were not valid.
Lloyd also raises the issue of historical coral bleaching, writing that “there is certainly documented evidence of earlier bleaching” than prior to 1980.
He cites a paper (actually a book chapter) from retired AIMS scientist Ray Berkelmans which pointed out that British scientists visiting the reef in 1929 witnessed bleaching.
But does this Berkelmans paper show that this 1929 event was evidence of “reef-wide bleaching” as Lloyd claims?
I asked Berkelmans, who retired from AIMS in March 2015. He told me:
We should not draw any conclusions from that 1929 event. We just don’t know how wide-spread it was. This was one observation at Low Isles – we don’t know if it was a patch of reef, if it was lo tide or just confined to the reef flat.
So does Berkelmans think his work, cited in The Australian, is evidence that mass coral bleaching is not a modern day phenomenon driven by global warming?
“No,” he said.
“There are of course early reports of bleaching – there was one in the US in the late 1890s. But we certainly know that since the 80s we are seeing many, many more [episodes of bleaching] and they are widespread and include widespread losses of coral.”
So the point is this.
Nobody has claimed that some corals have not occasionally bleached when under local stresses, such as high water temperatures or high pollution levels (Hoegh-Guldberg points to this 1993 paper to illustrate this).
The issue at hand is whether there has been mass coral bleaching happening simultaneously across not only the Great Barrier Reef, but across multiple ocean basins around the globe, and that this is a new phenomena. The answer to that, from all genuine experts, seems to be yes.
So is there debate in the scientific literature about the precise nature of coral bleaching and the multiple and interweaving factors that contribute to it? Of course there is.
But does this mean that the current bleaching event has opened up some kind of schism among marine scientists that is distinct from the everyday cut and thrust of science? No.