I recently got the chance to speak with Dr Charlie Veron regarding the launch of his new book, “A Reef In Time : The Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End”. As I’ve blogged before, Charlie is an expert coral taxonomist with over 35 years of experience, and already the principal author of over 20 books and monographs on corals including the award winning “Corals of the World” and “Corals in space and time“. The central theme, which remains constant throughout, it that the origins, history, diversity, and ultimate fate of Great Barrier Reef – as with all coral reefs – is, and always has been, controlled by global climates. Thinking that the Great Barrier Reef was once impervious to climate change: “Owned by a prosperous country and accorded the protection it deserves, it would surely not go the way of the Amazon rain forest or the parklands of Africa, but would endure forever. That is what I thought once, but I think it no longer.” This is shaping up to be a seminal book (think Silent Spring by Rachel Carson) which will hopefully serve as a wake up call to the worlds reefs.
Update: Australian viewers can watch Charlie Veron on Catalyst this week (Thursday 8pm). I will try and upload the interview from this on Climate Shifts for overseas viewers.
Why did you write the book?
I was writing a book comparing modern and ancient coral reefs. As I delved deeper into the issues surrounding environmental catastrophes of the remote past I became more and more alarmed as I saw increasing parallels between mass extinctions and what lies ahead for living reefs now. Over the past five years I have delved into every aspect of this subject: it now occupies centre-stage of “A Reef in Time”.
Where are does the future of reefs lie?
There is not the slightest doubt that humans will totally destroy coral reefs (as a prelude to the Sixth Mass Extinction Event) this century in a ‘business-as-usual’ world. However, more to the point and of more immediate concern, if we have another decade like the last decade, we will commit the oceans to irreversible acidification even though the effects will not be visible until mid century. Even a carbon dioxide level of 450ppm, as widely mooted as a level-off target, would be a catastrophe. Coral reefs are in dire predicament: there future will probably be decided before most decision makers, even reef scientists, have a clear understanding of what the issues really are.
What should we do right now as citizens if we want to save reefs?
The longer we delay the costlier the remedy will be. If we leave concerted action to a time when there is no option but act, the crisis will be over for coral reefs (they will be committed to destruction) and be full-on for most other marine ecosystems. It is too late to point to developing remedies such as sequestration of carbon dioxide or nuclear energy. Actions like planting forests and the raft of emerging environmentally-friendly technologies will help, but nowhere quickly enough, and their effects will be too small. At this point in time, the only option we – citizens of the wealthy countries – have left is to change our lifestyle, especially electricity consumption and travel. We are capable of achieving 50% cuts in greenhouse emissions virtually immediately. What is required is willingness, and knowledge about what to do, and why. That, and that alone, will buy the time necessary for big global initiatives to come to a long term rescue.
In your opinion, are we about to see the next great extinction?
Much of my book is devoted to this question.
Major disruptions to the carbon cycle are almost certainly the primary cause of all of the five great mass extinction events of the past – ‘events’ that have actually taken hundreds of thousands to millions of years.
The fast currency of the carbon cycle is carbon dioxide, acting on its own, or in synergy with other gases (especially methane and sulphur dioxide). It cannot be rationally doubted that we are on the verge of re-creating something like the global environmental conditions of the last (K/T) mass extinction, 65 million years ago and we are doing it at a rate which has no precedent in Earth history. With the exception of a nuclear holocaust, this is the most serious catastrophe that can be inflicted on the Earth.
Like many coral specialists fifteen years ago, J. E. N. Veron thought Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was impervious to climate change. “Owned by a prosperous country and accorded the protection it deserves, it would surely not go the way of the Amazon rain forest or the parklands of Africa, but would endure forever. That is what I thought once, but I think it no longer.” This book is Veron’s Silent Spring for the world’s coral reefs.
Veron presents the geological history of the reef, the biology of coral reef ecosystems, and a primer on what we know about climate change. He concludes that the Great Barrier Reef and, indeed, most coral reefs will be dead from mass bleaching and irreversible acidification within the coming century unless greenhouse gas emissions are curbed. If we don’t have the political will to confront the plight of the world’s reefs, he argues, current processes already in motion will become unstoppable, bringing on a mass extinction the world has not seen for 65 million years.
Our species has cracked its own genetic code and sent representatives of its kind to the moon–we can certainly save the world’s reefs if we want to. But to achieve this goal, we must devote scientific expertise and political muscle to the development of green technologies that will dramatically reduce greenhouse emissions and reverse acidification of the oceans.