Screenshot from the CNN documentary, 'Race to save the reef', showing dead coral covered with brown slime at the Great Barrer Reef, 24 August 2018. Photo: Tom Booth and Stuart Ireland / CNN

By Rebecca Wright and Ivan Watson
24 August 2018

TOWNSVILLE, Australia (CNN) – In a dusty, secluded corner of the Australian state of Queensland, a septuagenarian scientist is on an urgent mission to raise the alarm about the future of the planet.

John "Charlie" Veron – widely known as "The Godfather of Coral" – is a renowned reef expert who has personally discovered nearly a quarter of the world's coral species and has spent the past 45 years diving Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

But after a lifetime trying to make sense of the vast ecosystems that lie beneath the ocean's surface, the 73-year-old is now becoming a prophet of their extinction.

"It's the beginning of a planetary catastrophe," he tells CNN. "I was too slow to become vocal about it."

In 2016 and 2017, marine heat waves caused by climate change resulted in mass bleaching, which killed about half of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef, along with many others around the world.

"Somewhere between a quarter and a third of all marine species everywhere has some part of their life cycle in coral reefs," he says. "So, you take out coral reefs and a third to a quarter of all marine species gets wiped out. Now that is ecological chaos, it is ecological collapse."

Watch the full documentary: Race to save the reef

One of the natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef is 2,300km long -- roughly the length of Italy -- and is the only living organism that can be seen from space.

When Veron, a former Chief Scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, first went diving on the vast reef in the early 1960s he felt like "his life started."

"It was so much packed into a small area, so much life, so much activity, even noisy. It was really a metropolis, it was really humming and buzzing," he says. "It's a wilderness, it's dangerous, it's exciting."

At that stage, he had no idea about what was in store for this vibrant underwater habitat.

"I was a climate change skeptic, at first," he says. He realized that climate change was "serious" in the mid-1980s, and around 1990 he became "alarmed" about its impact on coral reefs.

Coral reefs “on death row”

Veron says the mass bleaching events in the past few years -- and the prospect of losing one of nature's greatest treasures -- were a wake-up call for the world in the wider battle against climate change.

"It's more than an alarm bell," says Veron. "It's an air raid siren."

But the die-off came as no surprise to him. Back in the 1990s, he had predicted that climate change would destroy the reef, documented in several books he published, and in a 2009 keynote lecture titled "Is the Great Barrier Reef on Death Row?" at the Royal Society in London, where he was introduced by veteran British naturalist Sir David Attenborough.

Attenborough described Veron as "one of the great authorities in the world on coral" who has "devoted himself to looking after and raising awareness about the dangers facing the reef." […]

Map showing coral bleaching alerts globally, 2014-2017. Graphic: NOAA

After the recent mass bleaching events, Veron dived in multiple areas of the Great Barrier Reef to see the damage for himself.

"I was seeing it and feeling it and it was absolutely horrific, there's no other way to describe it," he says. […]

“Mass extinction event”

This doomsday scenario seems extreme, but after decades of studying scientific evidence around this topic, Veron believes that this eventuality is a certainty.

"We have got now also the phenomenon of a mass extinction event looming," he says, which he describes as a "man-made asteroid" that would compare to the dinosaurs being wiped out.  [more]

Great Barrier Reef headed for ‘massive death’



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