The following is an edited extract of Anna Krien’s Quarterly Essay 66, The Long Goodbye: Coal, Coral and Australia’s Climate Deadlock. Krien (pictured above) is the author of Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport, Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests and Quarterly Essay 45 Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals. In 2014 she won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award in the UK.
”Like most Australians,” Kate Jennings wrote in her essay “An Otter’s Life,” “I am a swimmer.” It was with this one line that I wrestled down doubt about visiting the reef, the feeling there was something gross about my going to see it. I had, after all, felt a hot rage when I saw the Australian this year promote its travel supplement with the headline “Endangered Destinations: The things to see before they disappear” – yet here I was, packing my bag. It felt naïve too, not so dissimilar from a recent visit to the reef by Pauline Hanson, who flopped into the water in her kit and declared to cameras that the reef is “pristine”. What would she know? What would I know? But now, on the boat, passing Magnetic Island, these Melbourne hang-ups were blown away with the wind. It was Sunday. My phone had no reception. Someone was looking after the kids. The boat could stop right here, in the deep blue, plonk me out like a sinker and I’d be content.
Then I saw it. I stood up fast, my arm flung out, pointing. “Is that it?” The skipper nodded. Ahead of us, deep dark water had suddenly transformed into ripping vast strips of turquoise, eggshell blue, a strange luminous green. I felt my chest leap with excitement.
In February 2017 the Great Barrier Reef bleached once more. Professor Terry Hughes again found himself in a small plane flying over while divers in black wetsuits flopped overboard below.
This time, the middle section of the reef was the worse affected. Welcome to the Myxocene. From the Greek word muxa, meaning “slime,” it is what Canadian marine biologist David Pauly has proposed calling the new geological epoch the Earth is entering – an epoch uniquely of our own making, a sped-up, tricked-up version of natural warming by an excess of emission, deforestation, overfishing and pollution.
For a time, until the late 1970s, climate scientists were unable to say with certainty if human-made emissions were going to cause the planet to cool or warm (their formidable task was complicated further by the effect of aerosols on the atmosphere). Today, however, the evidence is unequivocal. Coral reefs are one such indicator. Occurring, with the odd exception, within a band of water from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn, these reefs form a ring around the globe. Since the 1980s they have been taking direct hits.
Bleaching was first noted in 1911 at Bird Key Reef in Florida Keys. Since then there has been the odd minor instance, but en masse is a recent phenomenon. It is an irony of sorts that just two years after the Great Barrier Reef was accorded World Heritage status in 1981 – rescuing it from being mined for cheap limestone fertiliser and drilled for oil – the first mass bleaching occurred: this is not a threat that can be controlled by declaring a zone protected.
Global warming is pushing up temperatures in the ocean at a rate too fast for most corals, and all that rely on them, to adapt. An unseen side effect of this temperature rise is a change in chemistry. Carbon and methane emissions are making the sea acidic. A warming and increasingly acidic ocean will see a cascade of effects, more algal blooms; the demise of crustaceans, as their shells become too brittle and difficult to form; and coral reefs turning to rubble, taking with them the livelihoods and sustenance of 500 million people worldwide.
The Myxocene is not in the future; it is already here. In the coastal waters of Japan since the 2000s, plague-like blooms of jellyfish have overwhelmed fishermen, with 500 million or so blotting otherwise empty ocean. Fishing boats began to attach wire grills to the ends of their nets, metal teeth slicing the mass of globs into pieces. It was a bad idea – the gelatinous mincing dispersed billions of eggs from the female jellyfish.
In Precambrian times, before fish evolved, oceans were slimy and hot. As for their conclusion – that nothing need be done to curb emissions – so far, no scientist has discovered evidence of thriving human communities living alongside such oceans.
In 2013, in the Pacific Ocean, a bewildering “blob” of warm water parked itself for two years, clinging to North America’s west coast. A highly toxic and long-lasting algal bloom saw thousands of sea lions and seabirds, as well as hundreds of otters and whales, suffering seizures and dying, shutting down shellfish farms and other fisheries.
It is expected that weird bodies of mucus in the ocean, known as “dead zones,” some over 200 kilometres long, will become more common. In 1991 an Italian marine biologist, Serena Fonda Umani, swam alongside a “mucilage” in the Adriatic Sea. A National Geographic article in 2009 described the mass as “too dense to swim inside.” The article continued: “She remembers diving about 50 feet (15 meters) down when she got the sensation of a ghost floating over her—‘sort of an alien experience.’”
There are people who say this has happened before, often arguing in the same breath that action on climate change is therefore foolish. They are right on the first count. In Precambrian times, before fish evolved, oceans were slimy and hot. As for their conclusion – that nothing need be done to curb emissions – so far, no scientist has discovered evidence of thriving human communities living alongside such oceans.
Two hours later, on the boat for lunch, the crew leader commended everyone for staying close by, “except for Anna.” With as much sternness as you’re allowed to muster towards paying customers, he looked at me: “Were you just going to keep heading out to sea?” Maybe. At the beginning, I looked up every now and then to check my distance from the boat, but then swam as if in a dream. Now, as we ate sandwiches, the crew leader spoke about the reef. He told us about the crown-of-thorns starfish: native to the reef, it has a voracious appetite, expelling its stomach out of its mouth and over the coral, eating the equivalent of its body mass in one sitting. Forty years ago, populations of the crown-of-thorns starfish began to explode. One of its natural predators, the giant triton, had been extensively collected for its ornamental shell and this was thought to be the case, but by the ’70s it became clear the starfish were also thriving in the nitrogen-rich run-off (mostly fertiliser from sugarcane and banana farms) into the reef’s catchments. “They hide under the corals during the day,” the crew leader told us, “and come out to eat at night.”
After lunch, I swam out again. There was a single coral that looked like an enormous brain, as big as a VW Beetle. As if my eye was now trained, I saw a crown-of-thorns starfish on top of another coral, busy chomping away, too hungry to wait for night. I tried to dive closer, snorkel in hand, but my ears couldn’t take the depth. I dipped into a small cavern and found myself inside a shoal of thousands of electric-blue fish. They shivered around me, then came a second shoal of slightly bigger turquoise fish and a third shoal of larger green fish with pink threaded scales.
I floated in a trance.
I found that when I waved my hand through the water, the small electric-blue fish would swing away, triggering the next shoal to shift, and so on. I started to move my body like a conductor, using tiny movements to press against and shimmer the shoals, bringing them back, then away, rounding in on them, and pausing so that they would flood back up from the depths. At first I didn’t notice the corals getting closer to the surface, the tide going out, inching towards our flippers. Then I heard the boat sound its horn. I had been in the fish shoals for nearly two hours. I pretended not to hear the blast. I started to swim the other way and the horn blasted again. I kept going.
“One more minute,” we used to scream to our parents beckoning from the beach as waves curved behind us, lifting our tiny bodies into the air before throwing us down, pushing us deep until the air left our chests and then letting us go – when we would wriggle and kick up to the surface, hair tossed like seaweed, bathers at times in a tangle around our ankles, and we would scream, again, “One more minute!” I heard the horn blast a third time and I knew this time it was just for me. One more minute, I thought, and dived deep, scanning, trying to swallow it all with my eyes: the coral, the chunky fish with knobbled brows, the crackling sound I imagined was the invisible machinery of crustaceans.There was the absence, too, for I’d felt it, despite my lack of expertise. There’d been turns, spooky corners where I ought to have come face-to-face with a creature, an unnerving marine intelligence, but there’d been nothing. I swam to the lip of the boat and took off my mask and snorkel, leaving it on the metal shelf and went under one more time. A little ritual.
This is an edited extract of Anna Krien’s Quarterly Essay 66, The Long Goodbye: Coal, Coral and Australia’s Climate Deadlock.