A Reef in Time

cover of the book A Reef in Time is a book I have known about since it was published in 2008 but I only got around to reading it a few months ago. It is such a great book (great in the sense of masterful, imposing or significant, not fun) that I wanted to tell others about it via some sort of review, but I was daunted by the fact that Charlie Veron’s work is far beyond my capacity to critique in any meaningful way. He is, after all, a legend of reef science (see wikipedia or climateshifts or even his facebook page), while I barely dip my toes into the subject.

This page is my compromise: a collection of comments which agree with my own perception of the book but carry the weight of opinion of people far more expert than myself. I will start with the author:

When I started writing ‘A Reef in Time’, I knew that climate change was likely to have serious consequences for coral reefs, but even I was shocked to the core by what all the best science that existed was saying. In a long phase of personal anguish I turned to specialists in many different fields of science to find anything that might suggest a fault in my own conclusions. No luck. The bottom line remains: the GBR can indeed be utterly trashed in the lifetime of today’s children. That certainty is what motivates me to broadcast this message as clearly, as accurately and, yes, as loudly, as I can.

That quote appeared on a blog post by Caspar Henderson, who has this (and more) to say about the book:

… this book does more than simply convey the central message that climate change – and in particular ocean acidification – threaten to destroy the GBR, and that action to avert this should be a top priority. It also does at least two other useful things. One, it provides a brilliantly clear and authoritative introduction to much of the history of life on earth via a focus on some of the most productive ecosystems in the seven tenths that is ocean. Two, it conveys the stupendous enormity of a mass extinction event which – unless somehow averted – is likely to be the biggest in sixty five million years …

The book is also fascinating in its detailed account of the GBR itself, including a plausible account of a ‘stone age Utopia’ in which aboriginal peoples may have lived in caves under what, today (following a rapid rise in sea level at the end of the last glaciation about 11,500 years ago), are coral reefs.

Another opinion comes (via the publisher’s site) from Louise Goggin, writing in Australian Marine Science Association Bulletin: 

This is not a book for the fainthearted… Indeed, Veron believes we are on the brink of the sixth mass extinction of the planet. He makes his case in this book and paints a vivid picture of what we will be losing if we do not stop spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere… The book is easy to read with well-placed illustrations to explain complex concepts. It presents its argument in a logical and increasingly disturbing sequence that reaches a bleak end. It is a plea for urgent action written by a man who is passionate about the Great Barrier Reef. It should be read widely by anyone who cares about our planet.

Climate science is advancing so rapidly that 2008 is a long time ago. Sadly, none of the recent news makes Veron’s predictions seem any less likely. See, for instance, “New Maps Depict Potential Worldwide Coral Bleaching by 2056” on Science Daily in February this year.

Reading about the Reef

Having mentioned this book in connection with Tribal Science, I’m posting my review of it here in spite of the fact that it has already appeared in slightly different forms in the Townsville Bulletin and in Waves, the newsletter of the Reef HQ Volunteers Association.

Woodford's 'The Great Barrier Reef' cover picJames Woodford, already an award-winning environmental journalist with several books to his credit, decided in 2008 to tackle a really big subject, the two and a half thousand kilometre long Reef. Wanting to learn about it from those who know most about it and see parts of it that are usually out of reach, he signed on as a volunteer on scientific expeditions from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) between the beginning of 2009 and the middle of 2010.

It was a big commitment of time and effort (earning the scuba tickets he needed was a major exercise in itself) but it took him from Townsville past Lockhart River to Raine Island in the north, to the Swain Reefs in the south, to Heron and One Tree Island research stations, and even to Lord Howe Island, that last outpost of reef life far south of the Reef itself.

Slightly sceptical about the impact on the Reef of global warming when he began, he was convinced – and deeply concerned – by the time he finished. One expedition member after another pointed out the dangers to him, and in August 2009 he heard their research summarised at a conference in Brisbane: “Speaker after speaker made one point clearly … we were already in dangerous territory with regard to CO2 levels … the question right now is not whether the reef will suffer, but rather how bad the injury will be.” But this is a relatively small element in Woodford’s book. He dives some spectacularly beautiful coral reefs, has close encounters with cyclones, sharks and turtles, and meets a great range of colourful people.

The Great Barrier Reef is very readable, details of reef science emerging naturally from Woodford’s conversations with scientists (endlessly passionate about their work) and the experiments and underwater life he observed. This is a book for all of us who live near the Reef yet know little about it, and for visitors who would like to take away more than a memory of dazzling beauty.

The Great Barrier Reef
James Woodford
Macmillan, Sept 2010, $32.99

Woodford writes occasionally on the Australian environment for The Guardian. See his recent work here.