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Climate change impacts on Reefs are here and will change what Reefs look Like in the future

CAIRNS, Australia -- International Coral Symposium. "The impacts of a warming climate on reefs is not a future event. Complex changes have already begun that could fundamentally change what reefs look like in the future." Picture: Coral growing on plastic bottle

Picture: Coral faded through stress.

See Proceeedings from 12th International Coral Reef Symposium.

Reefs already changing

That was the overarching message today from a panel of coral reef experts, who are on the forefront of understanding the varied impacts of a rising seawater temperatures and ocean acidification on such areas ranging from coral growth and fish behaviour to the ability of reefs to provide fish and other services to millions of people worldwide.

The panel conducted a media briefing on climate change and at the International Coral Reef Symposium, the premier coral reef conference held every four years and a hotbed of the latest advances in coral reef science. The research and findings presented at ICRS 2012 are fundamental in informing international and national policies and the sustainable use of coral reefs globally.

The panel included Janice M. Lough, of the Australian Institute of Marine Science; John M. Pandolfi, of the University of Queensland; Roberto Iglesias Prieto, of the National Autonomous University of México; and Philip L. Munday, of James Cook University.

Tropical coral reefs significantly warmer and getting hotter

"Tropical coral reef waters are already significantly warmer than they were and the rate of warming is accelerating," said Janice Lough. "With or without drastic curtailment of greenhouse gas emissions we are facing, for the foreseeable future, changes in the physical environment of present-day coral reefs."

Lough said, over the past century global temperatures have warmed by 0.7oC and those of the surface tropical oceans by 0.5oC. This raising of baseline temperatures has already resulted in widespread coral bleaching events and outbreaks of coral diseases. Current projections indicate that the tropical oceans could be 1-3oC warmer by the end of this century.

Lough focuses on long-term growth histories from massive coral skeletons. Even with the modest amount of warming to date -compared to future projections-coral growth rates are responding to these observed temperature changes. Several reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, have witnessed slower massive coral growth in recent decades, while cooler reef sites off Western Australia have, initially, responded by increasing their growth rates. The latter is unlikely to be sustainable, given the setbacks in growth following coral bleaching and, as temperatures continue to warm, optimum temperatures for coral growth are exceeded, she said.

Vulnerability varies across coral species

Pandolfi further elaborated that there is large variation in the vulnerability of coral reef species in their response to temperature change and ocean acidification, so some taxa may survive but others could go extinct. In addition, coral reefs that are already degraded from human pressures, such as overfishing or land-based pollution, will be much less likely to handle the increase in temperature and ocean acidity


Different species' survival rates will cause differences in reefs

"There will be winners and losers in climate change and ocean acidification, but reefs will demonstrably change and, for most people's idea of what reefs are, not for the better," says John Pandolfi.

Picture: Tires litter the ocean floor.

Act local and reduce controllable stresses apart from CO2

Pandolfi added that ultimately the global community must act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But new science is also showing that, given that the impact on corals will be more variable than first realized, our management approaches must become more sophisticated, with particular focus on reducing local threats such as overexploitation and pollution. Managing reefs for local stress will ensure maximum health as they continue to confront a changing global climate.

Coral populations change will affect fish populations

Munday said changes to coral reef habitat caused by climate change will also potentially lead to changed fish populations. The direct impacts, which are already occurring, are reduced coral cover and less habitat structure for fish.

"That will mean fewer species and lower fish abundance," Munday said. "Some species will fair better than others. For example, fish that eat coral will be more severely impacted, but overall we can expect a decline in fish numbers."

Theory that high carbon dioxide levels affect piscine sense of smell and survival

Over time, he said, more carbon dioxide dissolved in the ocean can also cause abnormal behavior in fish leading to reduced survival. In a recent study, Munday and his team examined the changes to fish in tanks with artificially high levels of carbon dioxide. They found neurological changes that resulted in fish being less effective at avoiding predators, because of adverse impacts to their sense of smell and an increased tendency to stray further from reef areas where they can hide. At the same time, some fish showed, over generations, an ability to adjust to temperatures changes.

"Like coral, there will be winners and losers and the communities of fish we see on reefs in the future are likely to be different to those of today," Munday said.

Humans also depend on coral reefs for food, income and storm protection

Roberto Iglesias-Prieto underscored that these changes will ultimately have severe impacts on the millions of people worldwide who depend on reefs for food, income and storm protection. Reefs also contribute to national economies through such sectors as tourism and commercial fisheries.

"To truly understand the impacts of climate change on reefs, you have to be an ecologist, an economist and a political scientist," Iglesias-Prieto said.


I received the following e-mail from Melissa of the recently concluded 12th International Coral Reef Symposium in Cairns, Australia:

Good afternoon,

Just a note to say thank you so much for contributing to the widespread and informative coverage of coral reef research both in the lead up to, and throughout, the past week.

Thank you, more specifically, for absorbing and sharing stories that will contribute to inspiring and informing the creation of policies to help better protect and preserve the health of the world’s remaining coral reefs for our, and the future, generation(s).

In the words of this year’s Darwin Medalist, Prof Jeremy Jackson: "The future of coral reefs isn't a marine version of tree-hugging, but a central problem for humanity."

And we thank you for communicating that message.

With best regards,