A feel-good story of nature’s resiliency, “Doom and Boom on a Resilient Reef: Climate Change, Algal Overgrowth and Coral Recovery” has been making press with headlines focusing on the state of mind of the authors:
Marine scientists say they are astonished at the spectacular recovery of certain coral reefs in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park from a devastating coral bleaching event in 2006.
The paper is similarly emotive in parts, with words like “surprisingly” and “unexpectedly” describing the way the branching coral at four sites overcome the blanket of algae that had engulfed it after a number of bleaching events around 1998.
It seems that reefs in the Caribbean and other parts of the world have suffered under increasing layers of algal mats and many have only partially recovered. Compared to these reefs, the GBR recovery was particularly rapid.
The press reports then go on to attribute it to:
… a lucky combination of rare circumstances meant the reefs were able to achieve a spectacular recovery, with abundant corals re-established in a single year, said Dr Guillermo Diaz-Pulido, from the Centre for Marine Studies at The University of Queensland and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS).
Lucky escape? Well the paper gives a number of more pedestrian explanations. The islands have mostly rapidly growing branching corals unlike the slow-growing plate-like corals of the Caribbean. Also, the duration and spatial extent of the bleaching events were very short and small, an waters protected by a Marine Park, in comparison to other world’s reefs which have been subject to a long term assault from fishing and pollution, resulting in a long term decline.
So there are a lot of factors that would lead one to expect these reef’s to be more resilient, and its recovery not the fluke referred to in the press releases.
And rather than providing an argument that coral reefs worldwide are declining due to climate change, it actually provides support for the conventional view that the worlds reefs would have declined due to overfishing and poor water quality even without the periodic impacts of bleaching events.
Might I be so bold as to suggest that the cognitive dissonance responsible for the “astonishment” of the scientists may be attributed to a wrong diagnosis for worldwide reef decline, by placing too much of the blame on global warming instead of more pedestrian chronic degradations. Or with a pompous turn of phrase from Professor Brook that I wouldn’t begin to emulate, they had “fallen prey to delusional self-interest and become nothing more than unthinking ideologues”. Lets hope that real world evidence continues to astonish and amaze.