According to University of Queensland marine biologist Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, recipient of the prestigious Eureka science prize in 1999 for his work on coral bleaching, sea temperatures are likely to rise 2 degrees C over the next three decades due to climate change and such an increase will cause Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to die.

Hoegh-Guldberg’s statement is now being criticized by other scientists for being overly pessimistic, since it does not consider the adaptive capabilities of coral reefs. According to Andrew Baird, principal research fellow at the Australian Research Council’s Centre for Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, there are serious knowledge gaps when it comes to predicting how rising sea temperatures would affect the coral.

reef2 Can the Great Barrier Reef adapt to climate change?
Great barrier reef

Ove is very dismissive of coral’s ability to adapt, to respond in an evolutionary manner to climate change,” says Dr Baird. “I believe coral has an underappreciated capacity to evolve. It’s one of the biological laws that, wherever you look, organisms have adapted to radical changes.

According to Dr Baird, climate change would result in major alterations of the reef, but not necessarily death since the adaptive qualities of coral reefs would mitigate the effects of an increased water temperature. “There will be sweeping changes in the relative abundance of species,” he says. “There’ll be changes in what species occur where. But wholesale destruction of reefs? I think that’s overly pessimistic.”

Marine scientist Dr Russell Reichelt, chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, agrees with Dr Baird. “I think that he’s right,” says Dr Reichelt. “The reef is more adaptable and research is coming out now to show adaptation is possible for the reef.

Professor Hoegh-Guldberg responds to the criticism by saying that the view “that reefs somehow have some magical adaptation ability” is unfounded. He also raises the question of how big of a risk we are willing to take. “The other thing is, are we willing to take the risk, given we’ve got a more than 50 per cent likelihood that these scenarios are going to come up?” professor Hoegh-Guldberg asks.”If I asked (my colleagues) to get into my car and I told them it was more than 50 per cent likely to crash, I don’t think they’d be very sensible getting in it.