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Scientific fails and the Great Barrier Reef

By Peter Ridd - posted Friday, 2 February 2018

Late last year Piers Larcombe and I published a journal article examining 9 scientific papers about the Great Barrier Reef. These papers had been cited 5,791 times between them and formed the basis for spending billions of dollars on the reef, yet they had major deficiencies.

We called for the establishment of an Institute for Science-Policy Quality Control, and while we’ve had support, we’ve also been criticised by the scientific establishment, including the Royal Society in Queensland.

The “Replication Crisis”, well-reported in peer reviewed articles, shows that when scientific papers are checked around 50% of recently published science is wrong.


The public should be alarmed at this statistic, but should be even more alarmed when the scientific establishment tries to placate us with claims that all is well.

There are plenty of examples of very bad GBR “science”, which we detail in our paper, and which have been ignored in the debate thus far.

One scientific paper claimed that the GBR was 28% of the way to ecological extinction by measuring the reduction of the marine resource (fish and corals etc). However it defined a reef that was not absolutely pristine, but exhibiting “no reduction in the marine resource”, as 25% of the journey to ecological extinction. In other words because nowhere on the reef is absolutely pristine (because people have fished there), then all of it is defined as being 25% of the journey to extinction even though it is unmeasurably different from pristine. This is patently unreasonable.

Another paper claimed that the coral growth rates on the GBR have declined by 15% however two major errors were made and when these were finally corrected it turned out that growth rates have if anything increased slightly. In fact reef growth rates may well be 10% higher than in the 1940’s as would be expected because the climate has warmed slightly, and corals generally grow faster in hot water.

It is claimed that fertilizer from agriculture has caused a doubling of the phytoplankton in the central zone of the GBR compared with the unpolluted far north. The high phytoplankton is claimed to be responsible for Crown of Thorns starfish outbreaks and is the reason why sugar cane farmers have been told to reduce fertilizer application potentially damaging their viability.

A reanalysis of the data indicates that comparable parts of the central region do not have higher phytoplankton than the far north. This is to be expected because the reef water quality is utterly dominated by flushing of water from the Pacific Ocean not from the rivers. Indeed, as much water moves into the GBR from the Pacific in 8 hours as comes from all the rivers on the coast in a whole year.


But there is much more work that is plain wrong.

Reefs that supposedly have no coral, actually have great coral; reefs that are supposedly smothered by sediment actually have phenomenal coral cover; whole regions of the reef that would supposedly never recover after a major cyclone now have 3 times as much coral as they did six years ago. And let us not forget that 5000 years ago, about the time of the Egyptian pyramids were built, the GBR was a degree hotter than it is today and yet it thrived.

And then there are the remarkable statements such as “before the 1980’s mass coral bleaching never occurred”.

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Peter Ridd is in court currently fighting moves by James Cook University to discipline him for criticising research on the Great Barrier Reef. He is raising funds for his defence. If you believe in the scientific method and the need for integrity in public institutions please donate to his campaign by clicking here. Peter has uploaded details about his legal action as well as his criticisms to

This article was first published in The Courier Mail in an edited form.

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About the Author

Peter Ridd is a Reader in Physics at James Cook University specialising in Marine Physics. He is also a scientific adviser to the Australian Environment Foundation.

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