Climate change and coral reefs

Corals are famously sensitive to their environment, but their fate may be determined in the coming century by the relative rates and timing of sea level rise, global warming and other anthropogenic impacts. Disentangling these effects is a complex problem.

Corals can only grow within a very narrow window of ecological conditions, determined by depth, temperature and salinity. If sea levels rise more quickly than their slow growth can accommodate, they will die. They are also sensitive to predation and to marine pollution.

Coral reefs are in decline. Coral cover has shrunk by at least 30% in the last 30 years, and in some places (e.g., the Caribbean) by as much as 90%. Climatic stresses, such as cyclones, together with unusually warm ocean temperatures, high nutrient loads from soil erosion and fertilizers, are proving a lethal combination.

In 1997-98, unusually warm temperatures led to widespread coral bleaching and reef degradation worldwide, compounded by the fact that many reefs could not regenerate due to algal blooms created by high nutrient levels. Coral bleaching is predicted to rise as a result of continued global warming, while calcification rates will fall due to higher atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (from fossil fuel burning).

However, the adaptability of coral reefs is often underestimated, says Malcolm McCulloch (Australian School of Earth Sciences, Canberra), who presents his research at Earth System processes, a multidisciplinary conference organised by the Geological Society of London (GSL) and the Geological Society of America (GSA).

"Looking back over longer timescales, we know that extreme variations in climate have occurred in the past" says McCulloch. "In only the last 500,000 years, we know that there were interglacial stages when conditions were warmer than today, and which persisted for longer. Multiple oscillations of sea level occurred during Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 9 (c.320,000 years ag

Contact: Ann Cairns
303-447-2020 x1156
Geological Society of America

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