Great Barrier Reef Die Off – Wrong Question, Wrong Answers


A useful little tenet about science – about life really – is that if you ask the wrong question then you’re not going to get the right answers. So it appears to be with this piece about the die off at the Great Barrier Reef. Sure, higher water temperatures cause coral die off, those species which are more temperature sensitive doing so faster and more. Well, not more death, but you know, more of them die. That’s pretty simple and logical. But that’s not actually what we want to know. We’re entirely aware that turning a blowtorch on a Phoenix causes those feathers to singe. What we want to know though is whether this hatches the egg? That being the question not answered here:

Scientists have chronicled the “mass mortality” of corals on the Great Barrier Reef, in a new report that says 30% of the reef’s corals died in a catastrophic nine-month marine heatwave.

The study, published in Nature and led by Prof Terry Hughes, the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, examined the link between the level of heat exposure, subsequent coral bleaching and ultimately coral death.

The extent and severity of the coral die-off recorded in the Great Barrier Reef surprised even the researchers. Hughes told Guardian Australia the 2016 marine heatwave had been far more harmful than historical bleaching events, where an estimated 5% to 10% of corals died.

The full paper is here and if someone with Nature access wants to point out I’m wrong then please, go ahead.

We’re interested, sorta, in the fact that temperature sensitive species die when the temperature changes. And yes, we know very well that corals are temperature sensitive. There are cold water reefs and corals, there are warm water such and they ain’t the same animals. But what we’re really interested in is what is the long term effect upon a reef of temperature change? The thing this paper doesn’t actually tell us and what the reporting on it most certainly doesn’t.

We want to know what is the effect in 2018 of that 2016 die off? Even ,what will be the effect in 2025 of events in 2016? Various answers are possible. The teeming little buggers have had a few more knee tremblers behind the bike shed (not that that’s how coral reproducers, that’s for chavs) and all is back to normal? The more temperature sensitive corals are now not to be found at all where the die outs occurred? That is, we’ve seen a permanent change in species distribution as a result of a one off event? Those areas where the temp sensitive species died are just 30% dead entirely?

Well, what? Does a one time die off produce transient effects or permanent ones? That’s what we’re actually interested in, isn’t it? And if it is permanent well, how much? We talking about roughly the same stuff in roughly the same place but it’s emerald rather than asparagus green? Is it a change we give a flying proverbial about or not?

For the question we want the answer to is should we close down industrial civilisation to stop the Great Barrier Reef having temperature caused coral die offs? The answer is obviously no but it’s still the one we want to answer. Therefore that’s got to be the question we ask. And in more detail, here, it’s got to be well, what’s the effect after the die off, not what happens during it?

You know, the question not being asked but which still produces the answer that we must close down industrial civilisation.

There’s also a rather more interesting answer to this sort of research. We should stop doing it. After all, the science is in, we know this as an absolute fact. Climate change is happening and we’ve got to stop it to save life on Earth. Great, we don’t need to know any more, do we, fire all the scientists and get on with the salvation, the time for research is over.

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In the 1950s there was huge mass die-off of banana plants. You wouldn’t notice today. What happened was disease-suseptable Big Mikes died off and disease-resistant Cavendishes took over.

A similar thing is happening today with ash die back. It’s culling those ash trees that can’t tolerate being attacked by the fungus, allowing tolerate varieties to fill the gaps. Once it was looked for it was realised it happened with Dutch Elm Disease as well. Closer to home, the Black Death resulted in a population of humans resistant to Black Death type infections.


There was a fuss a few years back when the Australian government decided to cut back on climate research (because the science is settled) and use the money to research mitigation instead.
If climate scientists want prolonged careers they would be well advised to look for something other than CO2 that affects the climate. That is they need to unsettle the science.


Focusing on the shockingly sad death of coral, amid a much greater story of adaptation to the changing planet, is another case of government scientists writing not a study but a sales pitch, using numbers to flesh out their unstated assumption that human action is causing damage and must be mitigated or brought under control. (I assume the authors are in the tax-fattened sector, with a name like Centre of Excellence, which surely is in one of the People’s Democratic Republics.) Additional species adaptation is occurring in a Japanese landfill, as microbes are producing an enzyme that breaks down plastic… Read more »

Arthur the Cat
Arthur the Cat

I’m not a biologist so happy to be corrected by one if I’m wrong, but as I understand it corals have two modes of existence – a lower temperature static mode when they form reefs and a higher temperature motile one when the coral organisms remain free swimming in the wider ocean for all their lives. As the temperature drops from the high temperature regime to the lower the reefs reform and there’s geological (oceanological?) evidence for this happening in the past. Corals have been around for several hundred million years and in that period the Earth has had ice… Read more »