Letter 20: Australia’s Greatest (Dying) Global Asset

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Damien Cave, our Australia bureau chief, shares insights on global news, local recommendations and feedback from readers in this weekly newsletter. To receive it in your inbox, sign up here.


“Imagine what that looked like last year,” said Neal Cantin, a research scientist for the Australian Institute of Marine Science, as he bobbed in the water just above a section of the Great Barrier Reef that was mostly bleached and dead. “All that beauty — gone.”

It was our second dive of the day for a story I’m still working on about scientists’ efforts to intervene on behalf of the reef, and after a few days of reporting, I was struck by two things: first, the stunning scale and variety of life in Australia’s northern waters; and second, the global interest and passion for all that the Great Barrier Reef represents.

On the research boat with Neal, who is Canadian, there were four crew members from all over Australia; a Ph.D candidate from Ecuador; a research assistant from England; interns from Italy and France, and an Australian husbandry expert born to Greek immigrant parents.

The project they’re working on, which involves testing the resilience of coral to climate change, began as a collaboration between a Dutch scientist at the University of Melbourne, Madeleine J. H. van Oppen, and Ruth Gates, the director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, who is originally from England. And some of the funding comes from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

This union of talent and resources from so many countries is not uncommon in marine science; I saw a similar amalgam of backgrounds as a correspondent in Florida. But it speaks to just how much Australia’s tropical offshore asset — visible from space, we’re often told — means to the world.

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Yes, on a local level, it’s a magnet for tourism that generates around $6 billion ($4.8 billion USD) a year. This is what the Australian government seemed intent on protecting when it removed all references to the reef and the way it was being ruined by warming waters, among other things, from a United Nations report on climate change last year.

But it’s also more than that.

“Corals are foundational,” Dr. Cantin told me, comparing the reef to giant forests, like the Amazon. “It’s not just people from tropical countries who care about them.”

And, he said, those who do care are increasingly concerned. The effects of climate change are accelerating beyond what the ecosystem can handle. Rib Reef, where Dr. Cantin was diving, was teeming with color and life just a year ago; now most of it is just coral skeleton covered in algae that looks like soot.

There is still time to adjust. “It’s a big system,” Dr. Cantin says, with areas that can recover if given a decade or so of prime conditions.

But the world is watching to see what will happen next.

Will tour operators and the Australian government speak with more force about the damage from climate change? Will the giant Adani coal mine, which would bring more coal ships close to the reef, gain final approval? Will more of the reef die — or recover — in the coming year?

The role of science and what it can do to help will be the focus of my upcoming story.

In the meantime, scroll down for a few of my favorite stories from our climate team’s globe-trotting reporters, along a few other stories from The Times this week. And a recommendation for one of Australia’s most innovative (and retro) media start-ups.

As always, tell us what you think at nytaustralia@nytimes.com. If you’re a subscriber, join our private Facebook group for additional discussion, and if you think you know someone who would like to follow our project, forward this newsletter and cajole them (nicely) into signing up.

Interactive Feature | Subscribe to the Australia Letter Newsletter Damien Cave, our new Australia bureau chief, shares insights on global news, local recommendations and feedback from readers in this weekly newsletter.


Under a Cracked Sky

Diving in the tropics in one thing. Diving under ice is, well, best done through virtual reality — which you can do in one of our four virtual-reality films that take you on, above and below the Antarctic ice. “Down there it’s just always changing color,” one of the scientists says. You can also hear seals and experience an entire ecosystem that’s also being threatened by climate change. These are best viewed with the New York Times VR app, but you can also just watch on your phone or computer.


What Do YOU Know?

Creative journalism comes in many forms. Sometimes just a simple question can lead us into a deeper connection with a story. For example, which of the solutions to climate change identified at the top of this quiz/article (quarticle?) are most likely to temper the impacts of climate change?


Old Hollywood, New China

China is often seen in Australia through the lens of only economics or security. But this lovely visual feature on Beijing’s old-timey cinemas is one example of how The New York Times tries to present a more well-rounded portrait. I also love it when we combine reporters in different countries — most recently to cover a tense border dispute between India and China with Bhutan in the middle.


Our Australia Coverage

After a few weeks of experimenting with three smaller items per day in our daily news feature, The Breakdown, we’ve shifted toward a single story that we reflects or stirs up conversation.

This week, you can read about Amazon’s attempt to figure out the Australian accent; anti-Chinese posters found at several Australian universities; and the latest battle in the local vaccine wars. We also published a feature about how the A.F.L. has become an ally for the gay rights movement.

And it may be worth nothing that “Australian” from The New York Times content comes not just from our Australia bureau. This week, for instance, our colleagues covered Rio Tinto’s new colored diamonds in New York and 10 New York Times reporters contributed to our deep look at the Justine Damond shooting in Minneapolis.


… And We Recommend

My favorite media start-up in Australia: Crinkling News.

It’s an old school print newspaper, for kids. My 8-year-old and 7-year-old love it and I’m a big fan of both the stories their editors are choosing and the presentation, which includes not just news but also info-boxes with the kind of information that curious kids crave. Founded by a pair of former Fairfax journalists a little over a year ago, it’s a valuable gift for anyone training to raise the next generation of Aussie news lovers.