In what quickly became a viral sensation, Outside magazine reporter Rowan Jacobsen, who writes about food and travel for the publication, wrote an homage to the Great Barrier Reef in the form of an obituary, stating it had “passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old.” The story about the Reef, which is the largest living coral reef system on the planet and spans 1,400 miles, was picked up by several news outlets and shared millions of times on social media by users who decried those who continue to deny the effects of climate change, or that climate change even exists. The obituary also read the ‘death’ was due to the “most catastrophic bleaching event in its history, from which it would never recover.” The only problem is, the Great Barrier Reef is not, in fact, dead. Several angry scientists came forward after the obit began to circulate, claiming that although the reef is under severe and undeniable stress, it’s still alive and kicking.
The piece was written in response to a mass coral bleaching that took place in early 2016. Australia’s National Coral Bleaching Task Force defines coral bleaching as occurring when “abnormal environmental conditions, like heightened sea temperatures cause corals to expel tiny photosynthetic algae, called ‘zooxanthellae’. The loss of these colorful algae causes the corals to turn white, and ‘bleach’. Bleached corals can recover if the temperature drops and zooxanthellae are able to recolonise them, otherwise the coral may die.” Several research organizations released reports in March indicating a large portion of the reefs had experienced mass bleaching, warning it could lead to more dire consequences in the future if water temperatures continue to rise as the result of climate change, and stressing the immediate need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent coral bleaching from becoming the norm.
However, ailing and dead are two different things, which scientists were quick to point out in response to the claims the Reef had been completely wiped out. While several Twitter users expressed their grief online, it was noted most of them were not scientists and therefore, lacked the proper understanding of the situation, instead taking the obituary literally. Hoping to spread more accurate information, the Cornell Cooperative Extension at Rockland County, who claims environmental conservation among one of its many missions, tweeted, “Great Barrier Reef is Dying NOT Dead! ‘The message should be that it isn’t too late… not we should all give up.'” Others maintained the reports the Reef was dead had been “greatly exaggerated,” while still acknowledging it does remain in danger of extinction.
A report released in May of 2016 by Climate Council, a non-profit research group in Australia, indicated “93% of the individual reefs in the GBR have suffered some degree of bleaching, with reefs in the north the most severely affected,” while the Australian Government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority stated earlier this month that “22 per cent of coral on the Reef died due to the worst mass bleaching event on record.”
It’s no secret the Great Barrier Reef is in danger and efforts must be made to save what’s left of it, but it’s equally as important to report on the true facts, which is best left to the scientists who’ve dedicated their lives to the study and cause. Spreading misinformation only serves to harm their legitimate attention to the issue, as well as society as a whole. Climate change is undeniable but there are things everyone can do to help preserve and protect the environment apart from tweeting misguided information about the death of something that, though gravely ill, still has a fighting chance.