[Coral-List] The GBR is in trouble, but not dead

Dennis Hubbard dennis.hubbard at oberlin.edu
Wed Mar 22 09:46:19 EDT 2017

Michael makes an excellent point that we have tended to forget about in our
discussion of science for the public. The news media is in the business
of.... news. This reminded me of a story that Jack Sepkoski told me a long
time ago. For those of you who never had the pleasure of knowing Jack, he
was probably the first paleontologist to look for ecological and
evolutionary patterns in very large databases. In particular, he used large
volumes of published data to parse out details of recurrence for major and
secondary extinctions. Much subsequent work by others grew out of his early
methods and data.

When knowledge of his findings expanded beyond the scientific community, he
was a favorite for interviews. In one case, he was guarded because he could
tell that the reporter was looking for that "big headline". In the end, he
was asked a question that he thought was easy to answer directly... "When
is the next big extinction?" He explained that, because it was at least 30
million years off, there was plenty of time to go out and buy food and
bottled water. The headline read.... you guessed it.... "Leading scientist
warns - go out and stock up on food and bottled water for the next big one."

To a large extent, news outlets and popular venues are often looking for
the "big story". So, perhaps we need to figure out how to make the "big
story" what we want it to actually be. We also need to be careful to not
worry about "selling" our ideas.

I have seen posts here that conflate coral growth and reef building. It is
hard to not take this as akin to "coral death = reef death". Clearly reefs
and the organisms that create them or reside within them are responding to
stresses that have a been long in the making. The big challenge is trying
to think like a non-scientist. Most of the public thinks in a linear
fashion while reefs (as many/most natural systems) operate in a non-linear
manner. Clearly, the response of the world's reefs was not a
straightforward linear response to the stresses that are still driving
decline. Nor is the solution to simply return natural drivers to the state
that existed just before the 70s. Consider something as simple as, "it
isn't the 1° vs the 2° rise in temperature is the issue - it is the
instability associated with a warmer climate"; it isn't the 1° annual
temperature that is killing people in Chicago - it's the 5-10° hotter

As scientists, we are trained to write well-supported papers to convince
the other 5 people who do what we do. This is not a formula for effective
public outreach. Broadening our audience is an important part of the
solution; but learning to think like that audience is even more critical -
they aren't "dumb" or "unsophisticated", but they do tend to channel
information differently than we do. Teaching a coral reefs course to
humanities students that are smarter than me has been a good start.

Sorry, this started off as just a good story.



On Mon, Mar 20, 2017 at 1:52 PM, Michael Newkirk <michaeljnewkirk at gmail.com>

> Hi Terry,
> I completely understand. I was responding to posts in order and didn't see
> that you had already addressed this.
> Regarding what happened with the NYT, that's bound to happen given the
> overall knowledge gap between scientists and those who communicate science
> to the public. Perhaps some sort of webinar can be designed by scientists
> for journalists who are tasked with reporting on science. Reporting about
> other subjects is different, should be different, than reporting on
> science. I think that in their position, it can be easy to forget to take
> off their "story" cap. When you're pushed in journalism to write a
> captivating story, that opens the door to using elaborate and/or inaccurate
> vocabulary, creating headlines that people will click on, etc. There are
> ramifications for both science and the paper when this happens.
> Best,
> Michael Newkirk.
> http://www.editors.ca/directory/michael-newkirk
> On Sat, Mar 18, 2017 at 6:35 AM, Hughes, Terry <terry.hughes at jcu.edu.au>
> wrote:
> > Dear Hal,
> >
> > I agree with you entirely about the inaccuracy of declaring reefs "dead".
> > Please allow me to set the record straight about the news coverage of our
> > recent paper in Nature, and the "obituary" of the Great Barrier Reef.....
> >
> > Firstly, our paper in Nature last week was highlighted by over 1,000
> media
> > stories. As far as I'm aware, only one - The New York Times - attributed
> a
> > quote to me, where I'm supposed to have said that “literally two-thirds
> of
> > the reefs were dying and are now dead”. I did not make this statement.
> >
> > The NYT found a map that I had published online, showing a north-south
> > gradient in post-bleaching mortality along the Great Barrier Reef, and
> they
> > asked me to explain it for them. What I actually said is contained in the
> > following two email, sent an hour apart, reproduced here in full:
> >
> > ============================================================
> > ========================================================================
> > From: Hughes, Terry
> > Sent: Wednesday, 15 March 2017 5:50 AM
> > To: xxxxxx at nytimes.com>
> >
> > Hi xxxxx,
> >
> > I published that map here http://theconversation.com/
> > how-much-coral-has-died-in-the-great-barrier-reefs-worst-
> > bleaching-event-69494
> >
> > The Nature paper doesn't include this information.
> >
> > There's a serious mistake - the numbers are median % of corals, not
> reefs..
> > (reefs don't die, they show a reduction in coral cover). The range is one
> > quartile above and below the median. So 50% of reefs (2 quartile) in each
> > region lost the stated range of corals.
> >
> > This is the drop in coral cover measured underwater between March and
> > November 2016.
> >
> > Cheers, Terry
> > ============================================================
> > ========================================================================
> >
> >
> > From: Hughes, Terry
> > Sent: Wednesday, 15 March 2017 6:45 AM
> > To: xxxxxxx at nytimes.com>
> > Subject: Re: NYT - Graphic accuracy check
> >
> > Yes, it definitely should be "found that 67 percent of the coral colonies
> > had died in a long stretch north of Port Douglas". Not reefs.
> > ============================================================
> > ========================================================================
> >
> > So, Coral-Listers can come to their own conclusion as to whether I ever
> > stated that 67% of REEFS have died, or whether I said 67% of colonies.
> >
> > Secondly, Hal has raised the issue of the "obituary of the Great Barrier
> > Reef", which appeared in the media last October. Perhaps more than anyone
> > else, I protested at the time against the concept of writing off the GBR.
> > For example, the Huffington Post wrote the following (which I have
> > obviously abbreviated):
> >
> > "Great Barrier Reef Obituary Goes Viral, To The Horror Of Scientists"
> > (Chris D'Angelo, October 14)
> >
> > ..........Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for
> Coral
> > Reef Studies, said in an email to HuffPost that he was “not impressed by
> > the [article’s] message that we should give up on the [Great Barrier
> Reef],
> > or that it is already dead.”
> >
> > “We can and must save the Great Barrier Reef ― it supports 70,000 jobs in
> > reef tourism,” he said. “Large sections of it (the southern half) escaped
> > from the 2016 bleaching, and are in reasonable shape. The message should
> be
> > that it isn’t too late for Australia to lift its game and better protect
> > the GBR, not we should all give up because the GBR is supposedly dead.”
> >
> > Finally Hal, I call your attention to a paper my colleagues and I wrote
> > recently in Nature Climate Change, entitled "Securing the future of the
> > Great Barrier Reef" http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v5/n6/full/
> > nclimate2604.html and to my TED talk, "Yes, we can save the world's coral
> > reefs" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5LshSZn5RA
> >
> > So, in summary, I am not ready to write off coral reefs - far from it. I
> > have to say I find the "50 reef" concept morally repugnant - who among us
> > has the right to tell hundreds of millions of people that their
> particular
> > reefs aren’t important enough to be among the tiny minority of reefs that
> > will be "saved" by dubious promises of restoration? We should try to save
> > all reefs by dealing with climate change.
> >
> > Cheers, Terry
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> > -----Original Message-----
> > From: coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov [mailto:coral-list-bounces@
> > coral.aoml.noaa.gov] On Behalf Of Lescinsky, Halard
> > Sent: Friday, 17 March 2017 12:46 AM
> > To: Coral -List <coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov>
> > Subject: [Coral-List] The GBR has died (again).
> >
> > The Great Barrier Reef died again.  It said so in the headline on Page 2
> > of my local paper in an article originating from the NY Times ("Large
> > sections of the Great Barrier Reef are now dead").  But unlike the GBR’s
> > previous death (the Outside/Facebook announcement) last fall, this time
> the
> > journalism was responsible.  It quotes Terry Hughes as saying “literally
> > two-thirds of the reefs were dying and are now dead”.
> >
> > I have great respect for Terry as a scientist and as a leading
> > international point person for coral reefs, but as in the GBR’s previous
> > obituary, I question the wisdom of such a pronouncement, and indeed what
> it
> > even means.  Is there an agreed upon definition of what a “dead reef”
> > constitutes?  For example, is there a maximum live coral cover required
> > (ie:
> >  A reef is dead if its live coral cover is below x%) or is there some
> > other metric to consider?
> >
> > I see several main problems with defining a dead reef.  The first is that
> > reefs aren’t alive in the first place- they are an area or an ecosystem.
> > We are unlikely to say that a mountain or a canyon or a swamp is “dead”-
> > these are places with many physical and biological attributes.  Death is
> a
> > word most often associated with organisms, and dead organisms are dead
> > forever.  Reef “reincarnation” would not be expected by the public, even
> > though we all know that reefs are structured, even in the best of times,
> by
> > disturbance and resilience.
> >
> > The second is that there are lots of organisms that live on a reef and I
> > have had students enjoy the thriving life on a reef that has no live
> coral
> > cover- but lots of fish and urchins and the like.  Is the community dead
> > if the corals are dead?  Third, reefs have a variety of zones, and while
> > most monitoring is at shallow depths (10m) that may bleach intensely,
> > deeper zones (including the now well-known mesophotic areas) are little
> > impacted by bleaching.  If the top of a reef is “dead” is that enough to
> > pronounce the entire reef dead?
> > It could be that any announcement that puts reefs in the news is good
> > because it raises awareness, but there is a reason that most conservation
> > organizations choose positive rather than gloomy imagery and messages
> when
> > raising awareness (and $$).  Negative stories shut people down, and the
> > danger of crying wolf further threatens to deafen the public’s ears..
>  I’d
> > vote for not declaring reefs dead, but if we do, let’s at least agree on
> > an objective definition.
> >
> > Hal Lescinsky, Otterbein University
> > _______________________________________________
> > Coral-List mailing list
> > Coral-List at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> > http://coral.aoml.noaa.gov/mailman/listinfo/coral-list
> > _______________________________________________
> > Coral-List mailing list
> > Coral-List at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> > http://coral.aoml.noaa.gov/mailman/listinfo/coral-list
> _______________________________________________
> Coral-List mailing list
> Coral-List at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> http://coral.aoml.noaa.gov/mailman/listinfo/coral-list

Dennis Hubbard
Chair, Dept of Geology-Oberlin College Oberlin OH 44074
(440) 775-8346

* "When you get on the wrong train.... every stop is the wrong stop"*
 Benjamin Stein: "*Ludes, A Ballad of the Drug and the Dream*"

More information about the Coral-List mailing list