After noting that corals like it hot (though some like it hotter than others) Peter Ridd looked at their incredible adaptability, old reports of bleaching, spurious claims, acidification and reporting good news as bad news.
Ridd explains how the relationship between the polyp and the symbiont [algae] is the key to the survival of corals. At the larval stage the corals generally have no symbionts because they collect them from the water with the remarkable capacity to pick and chose among the variety of algae available. Even with severe bleaching some coral survives and they can regenerate with a more appropriate variety of algae to withstand the next period of stress. By simply varying the symbionts young coral can prepare to deal with a range of different temperature regimes. According to Ridd bleaching should be seen as a defence mechanism , a strategy for survival and most bleached corals fully recover. More on adaptability from Jo Nova here and here.
The ABC and Professor Terry Hughes of James Cook have been active in spreading the idea that bleaching is a recent thing due to warming in the last two or three decades “When I was a PhD student 30 years ago regional scale bleaching events were completely unhears of” (Hughes). Ridd states that bleaching was recorded early last century in the first major scientific study of the Great Barrier Reef (citing Yonge 1930). There are many records of coral bleaching before 1982 and then in the 1960s bleaching was “discovered” by scientists at the newly established institutions on the Great Barrier Reef Coast – the Australian Institute of Marine Science and James Cook University.
Similarly spurious claims regarding human influence were made regarding the plagues of crown-of-thorns-starfish COTS in recent times until geological evidence suggested that the COTS was around for thousands of years. Reefs recover from the plague within about ten years anyway.
Dr Glenn De’ath and colleagues at the Institute of Marine Science have been busy predicting the demise of the reef based on extensive observations but Ridd identified some aspects of their analysis that need to be adjusted and when that is done their data do not support their conclusions. One of the research programs studied large, old corals and the more recent research (possibly prompted by the fashion of the moment) focussed on small colonies. The two sets of results were spliced without taking account of the different samples.
Reporting good news as bad news
Researchers from WA found a 10% increase in calcification rates since the 1940s for offshore and mid-shelf reefs that account for 99% of all the coral in the GBR. About 1% of corals live very close to the coast and here the research found a 5% decline in the calcification rate. Imagine how this was reported in the journal Coral Reefs.
Our new findings nevertheless continue to raise concerns with the inner-shelf reefs continuing to show long-term declines in calcification…In contrast the more ‘pristine’ mid and outer-shelf reefs appear to be undergoing a transition from increasing to decreasing rates of calcification, possibly reflecting the effects of CO2-driven climate change.
Moving on to the issue of quality assurance Ridd noted some other lines of research on reef stresses that he regards as equally dubious alongside the examples that he treated in this paper. This brings us to the political economy of science as noted by Michaels in his contribution. Ridd noted that there is an industry with thousands of people employed to ‘save the GGR’ and Lloyd in The Australian suggested that for a scientist to question the consensus is potentially a career-ending move. In due course that turned out to be true.
Peer review is not working; see the East Anglia emails and copious reports around the water coolers, not to mention the alarms sounded by the editor of Lancet and others cited by Michaels and also by Ridd in this paper, notably John Ioannidis at Stanford.
Policy science concerning the GBR is almost never checked. Over the next few years Australian governments will spend more than a billion dollars on the GBR: the costs to industry could far exceed this. Yet the keystone research papers have not been subjected to proper scrutiny. Instead there is a total reliance on the demonstrably inadequate peer-review process.