#42) A Global Tragedy: The “Great Berry Reef” is Rotting

Trust me on this, I used to be a scientist.  I spent years studying Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  What is happening this year is shocking.  Based on what we witnessed in Jamaica in the 1980’s, it’s going to have lasting effects.


Years ago I gave a slide show to a group of second graders in Los Angeles where I showed my favorite photos from my years of studying marine biology on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  A week later the teacher sent me the drawings the kids did after my talk.  One little girl very earnestly thanked me for telling them about “The Great Berry Reef.”

Now the northern third of the Great Berry Reef, where I spent a year living on Lizard Island, is just plain rotting to death.  There’s no better way to express it.  Look at the photos in this Guardian article focusing on the work of some of my old friends.

The next time you run into a climate denier, ask them to account for this.  It’s been fun laughing at their stupidity until now, but this changes things.  At least for me it does.  It’s very bad.



What was well documented for the demise of coral reefs in Jamaica is probably relevant to what is now happening to the Great Barrier Reef.

I spent the summer of 1980 at Discovery Bay Marine Lab on the north shore of Jamaica.  In August the island was devastated by Hurricane Allen, the largest hurricane of the century up until then. Along with my life long close friends, marine biologists Jeremy Jackson, Nancy Knowlton, and Mark Patterson, we hid out in the Blue Mountains and listened to trees crash down all night as Hurricane Allen passed over our heads.  At sunrise we looked down and in the distance saw 25 foot waves crashing on the reef — a bit of a contrast to normal conditions as none of us could remember anything bigger than about waist high waves hitting the reef.

The next day we went diving and saw complete devastation.  In a single day all the beautiful coral formations that had gone by such nicknames as “The Haystacks” and “The Emerald City” had vanished.  Left behind, down to about 50 foot depth, was little more than scoured bottom — no corals, almost no fish.

The reefs became overgrown by algae.  I returned 12 years later with my graduate students when I was a professor at University of New Hampshire.  The place was still an unsightly mess as very little coral had returned and everything was overgrown by seaweed.  To this day, 36 years later, it still bares no resemblance of the underwater splendor that it used to be.  Coral reefs take a long time to recover.



In 2007, as I was shooting my mockumentary, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” science fiction author Michael Crichton told me, “No one can predict the future.”  He had become a huge climate skeptic and this was one of his favorite things to say.  And it’s true.  But …

We can now predict some very bad things for the northern third of the Great Barrier Reef.  It’s going to look bad for a long time to come.  The Guardian article, like everything else I’ve been reading, is horrifying.  I remember the reefs around Lizard Island so vividly.  Today’s photos, from that same area, bare no resemblance to anything I ever saw.  They really are kind of beyond the imagination.

Take it from me, it’s really, really bad.