Feeling blue: New research explores ecological grief in reef communities

6 Sep 2021


Coral reef
Image credit: Francesco Ungaro

Dr Claudia Benham of The University of Queensland’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences has been honoured with a Discovery Early Career Researchers Award (DECRA) grant.

The grant, received from the Australian Government’s Australian Research Council (ARC), will support Dr Benham’s research, which will explore how communities along Australia’s reef coast cope with the grief caused by environmental losses caused by climate change.

“Biodiversity loss and climate change are global concerns, but their impacts are experienced most acutely at the local scale, where people live, work, and form attachments to the environment,” Dr Benham said.

“In some cases, environmental losses can evoke feelings of ecological grief among local communities, which is the emotional distress associated with losing important species, ecosystems or places.

“This grief has been reported in communities across the globe, including First Nations communities in north-eastern Canada who grieve the loss of caribou, and farming communities in the Western Australian wheat belt.”

Ecological grief has also been identified among communities in the Great Barrier Reef, and it appears most likely to occur when environmental losses happen quickly or when species or ecosystems of high social or cultural importance are affected.

“The reef is an iconic ecosystem, but climate change and other stressors threaten its resilience,” Dr Benham said.

“Communities along the reef coast are often highly dependent on and connected with local marine ecosystems and are also experiencing other rapid social and economic changes such as the increasingly urgent need to transition away from resource-dependent industries.”

Dr Benham’s project will see her working with twelve communities in regions from Bundaberg to Cape York to better understand how they are experiencing and responding to these significant changes.

“This project fills a gap in our current research and opens the door to a range of questions on how experiences of ecological grief differ across communities and the difference in how those communities respond to grief and loss,” Dr Benham said.

“It will be the first comprehensive, interdisciplinary study to understand how ecological grief influences community wellbeing and identify adaptive local responses.

“It will also provide a basis for policymaking that seeks to foster strong and resilient communities in Australia and across the world.”

Media: Dominic Jarvis, dominic.jarvis@uq.edu.au, +61 413 334 924.