Saturday 28 November 2015

The Reef: A Passionate History by Iain McCalman

The Reef: A Passionate History does exactly as its cover promises - it delivers 12 'extraordinary tales' about Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

The only thing it missed to my mind, was a thirteenth chapter where McCalman included some of the local Indigenous tribes stories about the reef. There must be Dreamtime stories, rock paintings and oral traditions that could have been unearthed for such a chapter.

The majority of Indigenous stories in this book about life on the reef only existed through the lens of the white explorers and settlers - they only appeared as helpers or hindrances to the white exploration and discovery process.

Sadly perhaps, this is all that is available to the modern researcher. Whatever the reason, the Aboriginal perspective was missed.

The reefs story begins with Captain Cook's 'discovery' and end in modern times with Charlie Vernon, Chief Marine Scientist who has predicted an imminent 'reef apocalypse'. The book is full of fascinating snippets about the history, geography, biology, geology, politics, sociology, psychology, ecology and environmental aspects of the reef.

However, the truly disturbing chapter is the last one that highlights Vernon's findings on coral bleaching. He observed his first patch of coral bleaching in the early 80's, quickly followed by the first global mass bleaching event on 1981-82. The next major mass bleaching occurred in 1997-98 and an even worse one occurred in 2001-02. As it turns out,
reef-growing corals, which seemed peculiarly susceptible to increases in heat and light, were alerting scientists to climatic changes....
These damaged corals are capable of regeneration if water temperature returns to normal and water quality remains good, but the frequency and intensity of bleaching outbreaks is now such that the percentage of reef loss from coral deaths will increase dramatically....
[Reefs] are complex data banks that record evidence of environmental changes from millions of years ago up to the present. Imprinted in fossil typography are the stories of the mass-extinction events of the geological past, including their likely causes. These archives tell us that four out of the five previous mass extinctions of coral reefs on our planet were linked to the carbon cycle. They were caused by changes to the ocean's chemistry brought about by absorption of carbon dioxide and methane, through a process of 'acidification'.
Today's culprits are the same gases - carbon dioxide and methane - though their increased presence is not due to massive meteor strikes of volcanic eruptions that caused earlier catastrophes....
Already the oceans...have reached a third of their capacity to soak them up and balance them chemically. Stealthily, the oceans of the world have begun the process that scientists call 'commitment', which in this case refers to the 'unstoppable inevitability' of acidification that presages destruction long before it is clearly visible.

Sorry for the long quote, but I knew I couldn't trust myself to paraphrase all of that as precisely as McCalman did.

It has had a profound impact on me.

By 2050, the coral reefs could be melting into the waters like a 'giant antacid tablet' heralding an unstoppable 'succession of ecosystem disasters'. The point of no return is close at hand and the only real hope we have is that some of the key micro-organisms like plankton, algae and polyps evolve fast enough to become resilient to this new threat to their environment (and ours) or that the pattern of mass extinction doesn't follow that of the previous five.

It is a tragedy to think that this beautiful area of the world could disappear forever (or at least for enough lifetimes to make it seem like forever). And it is impossible to imagine what other changes this loss will incur.

We visited the area around the Low Isles 18 months ago, not long after a cyclone had battered the coral. Our youngest had control of the hired underwater camera; he took some beautiful photos despite the obvious damage all around us.

This post is part of #AusReadingMonth and #NonFicNov


  1. Coral bleaching is concerning! I don't think it's the most important thing discussed in The Sixth Extinction, but the fact that coral reefs may be dead within the next generation has really stuck with me.

    1. It's had a profound impact on me too. The change in the oceans that would follow on from a reef extinction is almost beyond imagination, except there have been five such extinctions in the history of time & we know exactly what can happen!
      Sounds like I will need to check out the Sixth Extinction as well - thanks.

    2. And, of course, now I understand the title - do'h!!


This blog has now moved to Wordpress.
Please visit This Reading Life to comment.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.