News Limited: Why do they get the facts so wrong?

I have wondered for sometime as to why some newspaper commentators find it hard to get the facts right on climate change (example).  Here is a breakdown by Tristan Edis of yet another piece of poor reporting by News Limited’s The Australian.
Tristan Edis, The Climate Spectator, Jan 7 2012

On December 10 The Australian newspaper ran a front page story entitled, Forget the doom: Coral Reefs will bloom. Following this bold headline came the following four paragraphs:

A WIDESPREAD belief that the world’s coral reefs face a calamitous future due to climate change is proving less resilient than the natural wonders themselves.

(This is a curious statement given that the science stacks up massively in support of the opposite!) Rising sea temperatures, storm damage and ocean acidification have grabbed the headlines as looming threats to reef survival. But as each concern is more thoroughly investigated, scientists are finding nature better equipped to cope than they had imagined. The latest research, published in Nature: Climate Change today, blows away the theory that reefs were doomed due to rising ocean acidification caused by the higher take-up of carbon dioxide in the seas.

For those unfamiliar with the topic of ocean acidification, increasing levels of CO2 are altering ocean chemistry in two ways:

1 – Lowering seawater pH (to make it slightly less alkaline and closer towards an acidic solution);

2- Changing the balance of carbonate ion minerals in the sea. A substantial body of research has accumulated that suggests this could be a serious problem for many marine organisms, because marine carbonate chemistry and pH play important roles in the ability of corals and shellfish to make and maintain their hard shell structures, essential to their survival.

Given this research, the assertions by The Australian that coral reefs will bloom came as quite a surprise.

Consequently I followed up one of the authors of this latest research – Dr Brad Opdyke of Australian National University. In a very upbeat press release from his university about this research he explained that: “Coralline algae play a really important role in the architecture of the reef. Without it, the reef would just be a big pile of rubble. “The clouds of climate change are very dark, but now there is this thin silver lining. The dolomite may just make some of the coralline stable enough to keep holding things together.”

However in discussing the research over the phone with Dr Opdyke he reinforced to me that this was most definitely only a “thin” silver lining and the clouds of climate change remain very dark. That’s because the coralline algae they investigated isn’t the same thing as coral. While their research found that the rim structure of coral reefs might be less vulnerable to dissolving from ocean acidification, the corals that make these reefs so beautiful and help provide the nurseries for so many fish, are still very much threatened by acidification.

In addition the lead author of the research cited by The Australian, Merinda Nash, subsequently wrote an article (republished by Climate Spectator) stating: “Coralline algae are not the same as the symbiotic zooxanthellae algae that live within the coral branch….a reef made only of coralline algae will not support the biodiversity presently found on our tropical reefs.” She concluded the article stating, “While this research shows that coralline algae may be more resilient than we thought, unfortunately, we still can’t rely on this to save our reefs.”

In addition to citing the work by Merinda Nash and Brad Opdyke, The Australian also referred to research by Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg to suggest that coral reefs were likely to be highly resilient to the effects of climate change. Climate Spectator asked Hoegh-Guldberg what he thought of the article in The Australian to which he replied, “amusing indeed.”

I also managed to get a detailed briefing with one of Hoegh-Guldberg’s fellow coral reef researchers at the University of Queensland, Professor Peter Mumby. He told me the article “absolutely misrepresents” the threat posed by rising CO2 to coral reefs. Mumby explained that the Nash-Opdyke paper had only looked at one species of corraline algae. However there were a range of other coralline algae that were very important in providing nursery habitat for new coral and these were definitely threatened by acidification.

Plus he added there were “many many species of coral vulnerable to acidification”. He also pointed out the article provided a “very inappropriate” impression, because there was abundant evidence that rising ocean temperature, not just ocean acidification, represented a major threat to coral’s survival. According to Mumby, while there was research to suggest some coral reef species have greater tolerance for change in temperature, there is “little doubt that the net overall effect [from global warming] will be greater stress and reduced levels of growth and survival of corals.”

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