One of the most beautiful places on Earth is under attack — and that’s very bad news for us

The Great Barrier Reef is the crown jewel of the ocean, but it might not be for long

Topics: Tony Abbott, Climate Change, great barrier reef, ocean acidification, marine life, unesco, Australia,

Climate change, ocean acidification, cyclones, proliferating predators, coastal development and a pro-industry, anti-environmental government: The Great Barrier Reef is basically getting hit from all sides at once. Stretching for about 1,400 miles along the Australian coast, the vast system of corals, marine life and tropical islands is one of the country’s most precious treasures — and one of its greatest liabilities.

The threat currently facing the reef, according to a report recently released by the Australian Marine Conservation Society, is “unprecented.” UNESCO, which placed the reef on its list of World Heritage Sites, warned that it may soon reclassify it as a World Heritage in Danger Site. Its most immediate problems come from the mining industry, which the AMCS says is dredging and dumping marine sediment on the reef to a far greater extent than it’s admitted to, and from the government, which is being criticized for allowing this destruction to occur.

On a larger scale, however, it’s perhaps the first victim of the same forces that threaten the world’s climate: the increasing levels of carbon and methane in the atmosphere. It’s the canary in the coal mine for our entire planet — if the reef is in trouble, says author and historian Iain McCalman, that means the rest of us are in trouble, too.

In The Reef: A Passionate History, McCalman traces the history of humanity’s complex relationship with the Great Barrier Reef, from Captain James Cook, who crashed into it, and thus discovered it for the Western world, in 1769, until today. McCalman spoke with Salon about the reef’s current state, and about the dangerous practices and policies — both in Australia and throughout the world — that leave it with a very uncertain future. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

To start off, let’s establish why the Great Barrier Reef is so important, from an environmental perspective.

Well it’s incredibly important for a whole series of reasons. For Australia it’s important because it creates an extraordinarily rich area of marine biodiversity. And it does so for a huge distance. It also produces, of course, an unbelievably beautiful environment. But throughout all that area it protects the shore from the exposure to the massive breakers from the Pacific. So if you were to take it away, you would lose all that biodiversity, all those fish and the creatures and turtles, but you’d also expose the shore to massive damage. It would be eroded and smashed to pieces.

From a global point of view, it produces an enormous amount of the coral that fertilizes the whole of the Southern Ocean. Of course of the fish and the creatures and turtles and so on, they go right through the South Pacific. If you were to take it away, the damage it would do to the entire Southern Ocean is almost incalculable.

You also write that it functions as a kind of barometer of environmental heath. Can you explain what you mean by that?

It really is. It’s because we’ve discovered that corals happen to be incredibly fragile before the forces that are being created at the moment by what people call climate change. CO2 and methane in our atmosphere, are changing our weather and our climate. And corals are probably the most vulnerable and sensitive barometers of the effects of this, of anything else in the whole, on the whole planet. And they’re suffering — people compare them to the little canaries that miners in the 19th century would take down the mines to test whether they were toxic gases. And corals are doing that. They really are afflicted by the problems of climate change in at least three or four separate ways.

One of those is ocean acidification, which is one of these major effects of climate change that we don’t hear about as much. It strikes me that this is one of contexts where that problem really becomes apparent.

Absolutely. Ocean acidification is the elephant in the room, and you’re quite right: I did lots of interviews when I published The Reef, and very rarely does anyone ask me about that. Especially in Australia. They think more obvious things, the crown-of-thorns starfish that are wrecking the corals, the cyclones, the warming, which is very important because it’s bleaching the corals. But ocean acidification is the one that not only threatens the reef; it threatens all the oceans. And so it’s the really serious one. And it’s perhaps the slowest of them. It’s operating in stealth at the moment. The coral in the barrier reef is probably acidified by about 20 percent — when it gets up to 50 or 60 percent then corals will start to dissolve. So not only corals, but anything that has a calcium skeleton, like the little plankton on which krill feed and so on.

How close are we to reaching that level?

What’s happening at the moment is that the ocean acidification is making the corals more brittle, and probably slowing their growth. And that’s making it harder for them to resist the forces of the ocean, and especially the forces of increasing cyclones, which are getting stronger and more regular. The corals are just not strong enough to resist them. And nor are they strong enough to cope with the other effects of things, like bleaching which you can recover from: if the corals are strong and if the waters cool, then the corals can recover. But the fact is that these forces are all combining to make the corals, well, stricken really.

The reef started out as something threatening, that people wanted to conquer, and at some point it transformed into something we needed to protect. Was there a certain turning point where that happened, or was it more of a gradual process?

It was a gradual process, but certain people were key triggers. One of them that I mentioned in the book is this man Ted Banfield, who really was the equivalent of Thoreau in America, you know, where Thoreau makes this enormous impact on people with his little hut on the banks of Walden. Banfield actually was a great fan of Thoreau, and he endedup living on Dunk Island in the barrier reef. He was one of the first people to do so, and certainly one of the first people to embrace the life of the island, the sea, the environments. He learned from aboriginal people there and he wrote these books that are perhaps not much read these days, but they were enormously influential, both overseas and in Australia. They told the story of the reef as the creator of a paradise for man,  about nature as a healer. This man had been dying when he went to live on the island, he’d only been given a few months to live, and he was keep completely regenerated. He became a writer as a result of this life.

And then other people have followed in his wake — we’ve had wonderful artists who’ve worked on the reef, and they’ve told a story that is different. It’s a story that’s about beauty, it’s a story about the human need for wild places, for the healing powers of the sun and of the enormous uplift of the spirit in forests and when there’s a wonderful biodiversity of beauty under the oceans. And so that’s a story that has started to gradually to prevail. And of course tourism has helped that enormously. As has the ability for us to see underwater now, with scuba and snorkeling. This world has opened up to us. And it’s absolutely a magical world. 

So you’d say that tourism helps more than it hurts?

I think so, yes. And you must come and see it before it’s really, really damaged.

The reefs of the world are in bad way, and this one has had a better chance than most because it’s been protected as a result of citizens, and also because it’s so enormous. I mean, you can still go to parts of the reef where hardly any human being has been. So it has one of the better chances, but nevertheless, there’s overfishing, and then there’s the silt, and there’s oil spills, and there’s pollution. The crown-of-thorns starfish, which is probably not something that Americans know about, is a natural predator of coral, a starfish which has suddenly turned from being minimally present as in any ecosystem to becoming a plague. There’s a tsunami of these creatures and they eat massive amounts of coral and what scientists have found is that this sudden plague has been created by the fact that the larvae of these creatures flourish in polluted waters, and so they survive and proliferate in a way that they’ve never done before. And their natural predators have also been diminished enormously. So suddenly we’ve got what looks like a natural phenomenon, but it isn’t, it’s utterly unnatural. And this is really serious — they think that 40 percent of the corals of the reef have been damaged by this creature and killed, irredeemably.

And of course, the other thing is that for many, many years, there was government resistance to studying this, because tourist operators didn’t want the message to get out that the reef was getting damaged. And so there wasn’t the possibility of scientists working on it; it’s only in relatively recent years that they’ve even worked on the problem.

You end the book on a note of optimism, but things seem to have been getting a lot worse for the reef and for the way it’s being managed since it came out. UNESCO recently criticized the Australian government for allowing dredging around the reef and said it might put it on its “danger list.” How concerned are you about the government’s policies and what effect they might be having?

I’m very concerned, indeed. I think that UNESCO’s absolutely right that this dumping of 3 million cubic meters of silt in the reef is in itself an absolutely terrible thing. It’s also a precedent: other people are applying all over the reef now to get dredging. It sends a signal to the corals, a signal of death, but it sends a signal to all sorts of developers and exploiters who could not care less about the health of the reef. So I think it’s a really serious and indeed a really awful portent.

And you’re quite right. There’s a bit of a paradox in the book that I end on a hopeful note. I mean, I think I’m hopeful rather than optimistic. What makes me hopeful is the responses of people that I’ve encountered who live on the reef, indigenous people, and non-indigenous people who are experiencing this problem, and are really getting together to try and do something about it. Now whether they can achieve it or not, I don’t know. I’m working with a group in Mission Beach, they’ve been hit with two cyclones, four years apart, that smashed their community and the corals and everything else. And the effect that this catastrophe has had — which is partly climate driven because of the increasing power of the cyclones — the effect it has had on the community is really uplifting. The environmentalists have all gotten together, instead of squabbling as they often do, and they’ve gotten together with the tourist operators, who’ve decided we’re going to work eco-tourism as the only thing, and the local businesses are working together in this community. And that’s the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this, and I suppose it’s that that gives me hope, though not optimism.

[Prime Minister] Tony Abbott is notorious for his anti-environmental and climate policies, and that’s what we hear a lot about in the U.S. Would you say that among Australian citizens there’s more environmental consciousness, and that smaller groups are getting things done that could help solve some of these problems?

Oh, very definitely. The Greens are increasing their political influence. It’s difficult in our system of government to have more than two parties — you probably understand that in America as well. But the Greens are really increasing their influence, and I think a lot of people at the grassroots are absolutely fed up with this government’s response to climate change. I mean, what they’re doing is quite duplicitous, really. They’re pretending whenever they’re confronted that they formally don’t oppose it, and then meantime they’re stripping away all the assistance that’s been given to alternative energy, they’re stripping away the carbon tax and they’re encouraging coal production in every possible way. It’s the classic dilemma: they’re selling the economic wellbeing of Australia, as they call it, against the destruction of our environment. Which ultimately, of course, will cost us dear economically.

So, it is a very despondent time, but you are right there are lots of grassroots movements. Though climate change is not something one can totally solve by grassroots; it is a global issue. Of course that’s another thing they say, “Oh well, no one else is doing anything, why should we?” That’s another classic cop-out, all around the world, but especially here in Australia.

But I do think in some ways, the only thing that will persuade some people about climate change is catastrophe. It’s the last thing you want to visit on anybody. Terrible bushfires, awful events at sea and disintegration of coastlines and so on. But this is going to happen, and when it does happen, people will have to wake up. It ceases to become an issue of whether or not it’s an economic thing, and it becomes a matter of their vital survival and wellbeing.

But whenever you have something that captures peoples’ imaginations, I always feel there’s a little bit more of a chance that people will be motivated to do something about it.

Well that’s right, exactly. And we don’t know, nature’s also very resilient. It has ways of throwing out things we can’t calculate. It’s possible, for example, that some strain of coral at least will develop resistance to acidification, to some degree, and to warming. I mean, they certainly would develop resistance if there was time. The problem is this is happening too fast for them to evolve any kind of natural resistances and so at the very least we’ve got to slow the process down and try to find ways of managing it.

Right, it seems like this isn’t the kind of thing that will solve itself without human action.

It’s got to happen with caring humans and nature. And we are a part of nature: we are creating natural forces that were once regarded as way beyond human capacities, like changing the weather, changing the climate, changing the ocean chemistries. If we can do that, we are nature. There is no difference. And in that case, perhaps we can also solve things.

Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email

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