The researcher who was labeled overly concerned for revealing the future of coral reefs.
At the young age of 10, Ve Hoegh-Guldberg caught his first glimpse of the Great Barrier Reef. In 1969, while most children were captivated by Nasa’s goal to land an astronaut on the moon, Hoegh-Guldberg was mesmerized by the beauty of the underwater world beneath the calm waves of Queensland.
He recalls the copperband butterfly fish and its shimmering iridescent hues that seemed illogical in their beauty, along with the remarkable epaulette shark that utilizes its fins to move across the ocean floor.
Nowadays, diving in reefs comes with the responsibility of understanding that Hoegh-Guldberg’s younger self did not possess 10 years ago.
He tells Guardian Australia in his hometown of Brisbane, “Perhaps my depression stems from a feeling of failure.”
The innovative researcher of coral is examining the unprecedented ocean temperatures of 2023 worldwide and is feeling a personal connection to it.
Coral reefs, which the researcher has dedicated his life to studying, are once again experiencing bleaching in the northern hemisphere. The potential impact of this on the Great Barrier Reef during the upcoming summer has him feeling uneasy.
For four decades, we have been attempting to establish the necessary scientific framework to address these issues,” he states. “But with ocean temperatures drastically rising, it appears that our efforts have fallen short.”
From an outside perspective, Hoegh-Guldberg’s career has not been a failure.
The University of Queensland professor is a leading expert in the study of coral bleaching and has authored over 400 scientific papers. His research has greatly contributed to our knowledge of the threats that the world’s most diverse marine ecosystems, housing a quarter of all marine species, are facing due to global warming.
In the early 1980s, while beginning his PhD studies in California, Hoegh-Guldberg encountered reports of widespread coral bleaching.
Could it have been a sickness? Could it have been contamination? Could it have been triggered by an overabundance of sunlight? Were the corals responding to a shift in water salinity? According to the researcher, there were many theories but no one had actually conducted an experiment.
In a sequence of “cooking trials”, Hoegh-Guldberg conducted experiments on coral fragments by subjecting them to varying conditions in a laboratory setting.
Register for Guardian Australia’s complimentary morning and afternoon email newsletters to receive a daily summary of news.
The researchers discovered that corals have a specific temperature limit. When this limit is exceeded, the corals begin to release the small algae living within them, which are responsible for their color and a significant portion of their nourishment.
In 1994, he witnessed a significant bleaching occurrence in Tahiti. The reef was so vibrant that he could observe the bleaching from the boat even before entering the water. According to Hoegh-Guldberg, the locals had no word in Polynesia to define the phenomenon.
Branded an alarmist
Towards the end of the 1990s, there was an increase in recorded bleaching events and their intensity was increasing. In 1998, corals worldwide experienced bleaching.
Hoegh-Guldberg poses the question: when will this become a problem? Initially, he believed it could take a century for the answer to reveal itself.
However, he utilized the results of climate models and compared them to the temperature thresholds of corals.
Instead of lasting for a hundred years or longer, the models predict that as soon as the 2020s, some coral reefs could experience bleaching events six or more times every decade. This is a frequency that is too frequent for them to have enough time to recover.
“I initially believed I had made an error, but upon further examination, I found it hard to believe. I consulted with the climate experts who were assisting me with the models and confirmed that regardless of how you approach it, there will be annual bleaching events by the years 2040 to 2050.”
Hoegh-Guldberg documented the findings in a written document. He stated, “Occurrences as extreme as the 1998 event, which is considered the most severe to date, are expected to occur frequently within the next two decades.”
The results of his research were heavily criticized, causing a backlash from some of his fellow scientists who believed he had overstepped his boundaries. In conservative media, he was labeled an alarmist. He also received menacing emails, which accused him of being a communist and expressing a wish for his death.
He felt emboldened and secure in his scientific abilities, but privately it had an impact on him.
He explains that constantly being on alert can lead to developing an ulcer and can eventually cause a sense of depression. Despite being an optimistic person, he admits that it can take a toll on him.
“Is there anything I could have done?”
In 2022, the Great Barrier Reef experienced its sixth instance of mass bleaching. This was the first time it occurred during a supposedly cooler La Niña year and the fourth occurrence within a six-year period.
“Is there anything I could have done?” he inquires. “Perhaps I could have physically attached myself to a gate.”
The idea of becoming an activist crosses his mind briefly, but he believes he is more valuable to society as a “bald professor” who discusses specific topics.
Hoegh-Guldberg has spoken to governments and royalty about the crisis facing reefs (both the literal kind, such as the Prince of Monaco and the now King Charles, and the figurative, Sir David Attenborough). He has given his expertise to climate court cases, to multiple United Nations climate reports and government committees.
He explains that his optimism comes from the fact that certain reefs seem to be less affected by global warming due to the unique patterns of ocean currents. Focusing on preserving these reefs from other threats could give them a chance to survive until governments reduce greenhouse gas emissions and temperatures become stable.
According to him, once you are able to accomplish that, you will begin to maintain the supply.
According to him, saving reefs will require a long-term effort and it may take several generations for conditions to improve to the way he remembers from his childhood. He emphasizes the need for a multigenerational approach and commitment.
He thinks that the Great Barrier Reef should have been included on a list of endangered sites by the world heritage committee, even though past governments have argued against it.
The reef is clearly at risk. “If something appears to be a duck and sounds like a duck…” he states. “I believe that manipulating words does not contribute positively to the discussion.”
According to him, the Australian government’s actions are contradictory as they allow new fossil fuel projects to proceed while also claiming to be addressing climate change.
He states that this is a critical situation for the planet and humanity. In the future, we cannot isolate ourselves and must find a way to reconnect with nature as soon as possible.