It seems that “The Great Barrier Reef Swindle” and my subsequent response generated a fair amount of debate throughout the blog world and the scientific community. Dr Ridd has posted his response to the my comments regarding the science behind the response here, and in keeping with the science and debate, see my response below.
Before I go into detail on this, attached is one of the paired photographs from the inshore reefs in Bowen, Queensland detailing local scale changes on the Great Barrier Reef during the 20th century (photographs speak louder than words):
Thank you for clarifying your position. I suppose my first comment relates to your first statement that you “did not say that there is some cover up regarding the health of the GBR”. I suppose I’m little flabbergasted given that the title of your article was “The Great Barrier Reef Swindle” and that your opinion piece was peppered with statements of the ilk “. Closer to home, there is a swindle by scientists, politicians and most green organisations regarding the health of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR)”. Even if you strictly did not mention “cover-up”, I think the implications from swindle and the associated concepts you trot out in your article are the equivalent of this. Few would disagree.
But, let’s leave that issue alone and concentrate on the particular scientific issues that you bring out in response to my comment on your opinion piece.
1 “corals are more tolerant to rising waters temperatures than first thought by most people”
My disagreement with the way that you portrayed the article by Dr Madeleine van Oppen and Jos Mieog is that you implied that the science that was being presented in the article credibly disproved, or contributed to the disproof of, the evidence that the rapid changes in sea temperature on coral reefs were a problem. Perhaps you were not to blame for all of the spin in this case, but I think it’s significant that the senior investigator of the paper chose to distance herself from the interpretation that they had shown that corals “are more tolerant to rising water temperatures than first thought by most people”.
Your statement “This is also not the first time that evidence been gathered that indicate that corals can respond relatively quickly to temperature changes by taking on different strains of zooxanthellae.” belies a certain lack of knowledge of the issue within the literature. I direct you to a series of articles that equally show that this hypothesis is largely unsupported (Goulet 2006; Goulet and Coffroth 2003)
2 Corals and Cockroaches
You comment that I have misrepresented your comments on the similarity between canaries and cockroaches. If you read carefully what I had written – I actually agreed with you that corals in geological time are not delicate organisms. However, Lyndon DeVantier, points out that even that statement needs qualification that not all corals have large distributions and huge dispersal characteristics – that many are not as robust in evolutionary time as my over-generalisation would have it.
3 Some like it hot.
And this gets me to your third comment in regard to “some like it hot”. Your point about the growth rate of massive corals increasing over the last century is only true up until 1985. There are two data sets that I know of that are currently in review which show a downturn in the growth of these same massive corals since 1985. I will discuss them when they are finally published. They show, like almost all organisms we know, that growth is stimulated by temperature up to a certain point. However, when you reach a high enough point, stress kicks in and growth rates decline. Classic stuff really.
In the meantime, if one looks at the data from the surveys that are done each year by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, you will find that not all reefs have recovered from the 1998, 2002 and 2006 bleaching events. Lastly, I can’t see what data you are referring to when you say “I think it highly unlikely that the hard cutoffs threshold for bleaching that Prof HG talks of are genuine.” If that were true, then the NOAA satellite ‘Hotspot’ program would be unable to predict bleaching by using anomalies in sea surface temperature.
Your last comment “An organism that has seen so much climate change over the eons is unlikely to have a weakness like a not adaptive thermal threshold.” mixes two concepts. The first is physiological responses to the here and now (ecological, days, months), versus the relatively slower adaptive responses that organisms make to changing conditions (decades to centuries). Corals have adapted to see temperature in the past but this has taken large amounts of time (much more than the short time frame over which the current rapid changes in sea temperature occurring).
4 Climates have changed before.
It is unfortunate but common mythology propagated by some that the current rates of climate change (last 50-100 years) are not unusual relative to the rate of changes seen over the past several million years.
The calculation to demonstrate that this is not so is rather simple. Let’s take a conservative view of recent temperature change and say that we have had a 1° change in global temperature over the past 100 years. (i.e. 0.01 °C per year). If we can assume that it talk 10,000 years for the earth’s temperatures to move from the last ice age to the interglacial – then we are talking about 6°C over 10,000 years (i.e. 0.0006°C per year). Now, these numbers are rough but highly conservative (if you talk about 4°C rise over the coming century, the difference becomes even more stark) and they demonstrate why biological systems may have trouble keeping up (i.e. it takes time for organisms to migrate from region to region etc; for the effect of natural selection take place etc).
I’m not going to deal with your out of date comment that the absolute temperatures that we see today are not outside those seen in the last thousand years, primarily because the arguments are made more succinctly elsewhere in and the data simply do not support your conjecture. I would refer you to the extensive literature showing the reverse is — Peter, I would start with the fourth assessment report of the IPCC and articles like Jones et al (2007).
5 Have we been swindled
The peer review process is certainly a tough process. In terms of our ability as a society to discern between spin, loose facts and real science, the peer review process is really the only thing that we can depend on. It is hardly perfect — but largely, if the idea is good and it is supported by hard science, a good idea will be published. I am sorry to hear about your trials and tribulations in trying to get your ideas into the peer reviewed literature. However, if your papers have the problems that we have been discussing so far, I can see why they wouldn’t pass muster with anonymous peer review because they are largely conjecture (i.e. GBR scientists are swindlers) and are not based on hard data. I reiterate the point that this is not about a club of scientists who want to feather their own nests but rather the process of science. Again, if one had really good data to show that climate change was either not happening all was not related to human activities, then I believe that it would be no trouble to get them published — and there would be huge rewards to scientists that could show that.
Re: Heretics that cant publish their ideas.
I think that all scientists are heretics at heart, and no one finds publication easy (especially given the rigour that is involved). I also think that these outlets (blogs etc) are important — but equally so, I think we have to be cognizant that these outlets are a great place for discussing ideas but they fall far short of the requirements of evidence of the peer-reviewed literature.
Finally, in response to your point that “the GBR is probably the most intact and least impacted ecosystem on earth with the exception of Antarctica” all I can say is that I agree (as does Pandolfi et al. 2003 if you read it carefully). But this is relative term. The problem is that despite the best in management practices in the world, the GBR is changing (see matched set photos above). Given what we’ve seen around the rest of the world, for coral reefs in places close to human settlements and further away, there is a lot to be concerned about — I don’t know any reason why we should be complacent that the GBR is somehow immune from global change and other an insidious human impacts.