06 Dec 2010: Analysis

Is the End in Sight for
The World’s Coral Reefs?

It is a difficult idea to fathom. But the science is clear: Unless we change the way we live, the Earth's coral reefs will be utterly destroyed within our children's lifetimes.

by j.e.n. veron

Over the past decades, there have dozens of articles in the media describing dire futures for coral reefs. In the 1960s and ‘70s, we were informed that many reefs were being consumed by a voracious coral predator, the crown-of-thorns starfish. In the 1980s and ‘90s, although these starfish still reared their thorny heads from time to time, the principal threats had moved on — to sediment runoff, nutrients, overfishing, and general habitat destruction.

For me, an Australian marine scientist who has spent the past 40 years working on reefs the world over, these threats were of real concern, but their implications were limited in time or in space or both. Although crown-of-thorns starfish can certainly devastate reefs, the impacts of sediments, nutrients and habitat loss have usually been of greater concern, and I have been repeatedly shocked by the destruction I have witnessed. However, nothing comes close to the devastation waiting in the wings at the moment.

View photos
Great Barrier Reef

Photo courtesy of J.E.N. Veron
Ribbon reefs have formed the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef for millions of years.
You may well feel that dire predictions about anything almost always turn out to be exaggerations. You may think there may be something in it to worry about, but it won’t be as bad as doomsayers like me are predicting. This view is understandable given that only a few decades ago I, myself, would have thought it ridiculous to imagine that reefs might have a limited lifespan on Earth as a consequence of human actions. It would have seemed preposterous that, for example, the Great Barrier Reef — the biggest structure ever made by life on Earth — could be mortally threatened by any present or foreseeable environmental change.

Yet here I am today, humbled to have spent the most productive scientific years of my life around the rich wonders of the underwater world, and utterly convinced that they will not be there for our children’s children to enjoy unless we drastically change our priorities and the way we live.

A decade ago, my increasing concern for the plight of reefs in the face of global temperature changes led me to start researching the effects of climate change on reefs, drawing on my experience in reef science, evolution, biodiversity, genetics, and conservation, as well as my profound interests in geology, palaeontology, and oceanography, not to mention the challenging task of understanding the climate science, geochemical processes, and ocean chemistry.

When I started researching my book, A Reef in Time: The Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End (Harvard, 2008), I knew that climate change was likely to have serious consequences for coral reefs. But the big picture that gradually emerged from my integration of these disparate disciplines left me shocked to the core.

In a long period of deep personal anguish, I turned to specialists in many different fields of science to find anything that might suggest a fault in my own conclusions. But in this quest I was depressingly unsuccessful. The bottom line remains: Science argues that coral reefs can indeed be utterly trashed in the lifetime of today’s children. That certainty is what motivates me to spread this message as clearly, and accurately, as I can.

So what are the issues? Most readers will know that there have been several major episodes of mass bleaching on major reef areas worldwide over the past 20 years. In the late-1980s when the first mass bleaching occurred, there was a great deal of concern among reef scientists and conservation organizations, but the phenomenon had no clear explanation. Since then, the number and frequency of mass bleachings have increased and sparked widespread research efforts.

Corals have an intimate symbiotic relationship with single-celled algae, zooxanthellae, which live in their cells and provide the photosynthetic fuel for them to grow and reefs to form. The research showed that this
Ecosystems can recover from all sorts of abuse, and coral reefs are no exception.
relationship can be surprisingly fragile if corals are exposed to high light conditions at the same time as above-normal water temperatures, because the algae produce toxic levels of oxygen, and excessive levels of oxygen are toxic to most animal life. Under these conditions, corals must expel the zooxanthellae, bleach, and probably die or succumb to the toxin and definitely die. A tough choice, one they have not had to make at any time in their long genetic history.

We tend to think of temperature in terms of our day-to-day comfort level. We don’t have to be told that atmospheric temperature shows huge swings and variations from day to night, among seasons, and cyclically on other scales. Early critics of global warming used this variability to argue that there was no evidence for overall thermal increases. This missed the point and delayed our recognition of the true problem because atmospheric temperature is only a minor part of the Earth’s thermal picture.

By far the most important mobile heat sinks on the planet are the oceans. As the greenhouse effect from elevated CO2 has increased, the oceans have absorbed more heat. The surface layers are affected most as mixing to the depths can take hundreds of years. Large ocean masses such as the Indo-Pacific Warm Pool do not continue to warm further, but rather they broaden and deepen. Now they commonly become so large that their outer edges are pulsed onto the continental margins, where waters are warmed further. This creates the mortal dilemma for corals — to expel or not to expel their oxygen-producing zooxanthellae.

View photos
Bleached coral community

Photo courtesy of J.E.N. Veron
Bleached coral communities are now increasingly common.
Ecosystems can recover from all sorts of abuse, and coral reefs are no exception. Good recoveries from bleaching have been observed, provided that further events do not occur while the ecosystem is re-establishing. Unfortunately, there are no signs that greenhouse gas increases are moderating, and so we can assume that the frequency and severity of bleaching events will continue to increase — on our present course, the worst bleaching year we have had to date will be an average year by 2030, and a good year by 2050. Ocean and atmospheric rises in temperature are also predicted to increase the severity of cyclones, which will add an extra burden on the recovery process.

Scientists don’t need a pocket calculator to conclude that compressing the time periods between events in this way will prevent recovery: If we do not take action, the only corals not affected by mass bleaching by 2050 will be those hiding in refuges away from strong sunlight.

But there is more bad news. A decade or so ago, we thought that mass bleaching was the most serious threat to coral reefs. How wrong we were. It is clear now that there is a much more serious crisis on the horizon — that of ocean acidification. This will not only affect coral reefs (although reefs will be hit particularly hard), but will impact all marine ecosystems.
The potential consequences of ocean acidification are nothing less than catastrophic.
The ultimate culprit is still CO2 but the mechanism is very different.

Normally there is a balance between CO2 in the atmosphere and its derivatives in surface waters of the ocean. As with temperature, the oceans act as a huge repository, absorbing and buffering any excess CO2 in the atmosphere. For this process to be efficient the oceans must have time for mixing to occur between its different layers, renewing the surface buffers from below. When CO2 increases too rapidly, these chemical reactions can falter, altering the balance of the buffers and gradually allowing the oceans to become less alkaline.

All organisms that produce calcium carbonate skeletons (including shells, crabs, sea urchins, corals, coralline algae, calcareous phytoplankton, and many others) depend on their ability to deposit calcium carbonate, and this process is largely controlled by the prevailing water chemistry. As alkalinity decreases, precipitation of calcium carbonate becomes more and more difficult until eventually it is inhibited altogether. The potential consequences of such acidification are nothing less than catastrophic.

In my book, I examine the events that led up to each of the five mass extinctions in Earth’s history. Corals offer a unique insight into the past, both because they have been around for most of the history of life on Earth and also because they readily fossilize. I examine the theories offered to explain these global extinctions and find that ocean acidification is the only explanation which fits the evidence well. Ocean acidification has played a major part in the marine devastations which took place in those ancient times.

A particularly galling aspect of the past four mass extinction events (very little is known about the first) is that, following them, reefs disappeared —
What were once thriving coral gardens that supported the greatest biodiversity will become red-black bacterial slime.
not just for a few tens of thousands of years, but for millions of years — long after adverse climatic conditions may have returned to benign levels. One of the characteristics of acidification is that while it can be initiated by high CO2 levels over relatively short periods, there are no short-term geochemical fixes to reverse the process. Reversal can take place only through the immensely slow weathering and dissolution processes of geological time, processes that take hundreds of thousands to millions of years.

Ocean physics dictates that we will observe the effects of acidification in colder and deeper waters before it spreads to shallower tropical climes. The early stages of acidification have now been detected in the Southern Ocean and, surprisingly perhaps, in tropical corals. On our current trajectory of increasing atmospheric CO2, we can expect that by 2030 to 2050 the acidification process will be affecting all the oceans of the world to some degree. At that point, the relatively cool, deep-water tropical regions that have offered refuges to corals from temperature stress will be those most affected by acidification.

No doubt different species of coral, coralline algae, plankton, and mollusks will show different tolerances, and their capacity to calcify will decline at different rates. But as acidification progresses, they will all suffer from some form of coralline osteoporosis. The result will be that corals will no longer be able to build reefs or maintain them against the forces of erosion. What were once thriving coral gardens that supported the greatest biodiversity of the marine realm will become red-black bacterial slime, and they will stay that way.

Another concept of great importance is that of commitment — a word climatologists use only too often. Many of the consequences of our current actions cannot yet be seen, and yet the Earth is already committed to their path. This delayed reaction is due to the inertia of the oceans, both thermal and chemical. The greenhouse gases we produce today will take a number of decades (and sometimes more) to unleash their full fury, but their effects are unavoidable and unstoppable. We cannot afford to wait until the predictions of science can be totally verified, because by that time it will be too late. How many of us wish to explain to our children and children’s children that the predictions were there but we wanted confirmation?

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Coral reefs speak unambiguously about climate change. They survived Ice Age sea-level changes of 120 meters or more with impunity. They once survived in a world where CO2 from volcanoes and methane was much higher than anything predicted today. But that was over 40 million years ago, and the increase took place over millions of years, not just a few decades, time enough for ocean equilibration to take place and marine life to adapt.

This is not what is happening today. Ponder these facts: The atmospheric levels of CO2 we are already committed to reach, no matter what mitigation is now implemented, have no equal over the entire longevity of the Great Barrier Reef, perhaps 25 million years. And most significantly, the rate of CO2 increase we are now experiencing has no precedent in all known geological history.

Reefs are the ocean’s canaries and we must hear their call. This call is not just for themselves, for the other great ecosystems of the ocean stand behind reefs like a row of dominoes. If coral reefs fail, the rest will follow in rapid succession, and the Sixth Mass Extinction will be upon us — and will be of our making.

POSTED ON 06 Dec 2010 IN Climate Climate Oceans Pollution & Health Australia Europe 

COMMENTS


There is a very exact parallel issue to all of the warnings of this article. I would not diminish the existential threat of ocean acidification - I have seen the death of coral reefs myself.

But I would like to remind our oblivious fellow humans that the terrestrial ecosystem is also in
imminent treat of utter collapse.

The level of tropospheric ozone is inexorably rising. Pre-industrial concentration was essentially zero - plants are not adapted to absorb such pollution and it is causing crop failures and death to indigenous trees at a rate that is unprecedented.

Go outside and look around at trees and you will find:

In summer, leaves are singed, burnt, stippled, losing chlorophyll, early autumn color, premature senescence, and just plain falling off.

this time of year, confers still living are losing needles and thin;

all sorts of trees exhibit bark that is oozing, seeping, splitting, corroded, roughened, falling
off, and raw.

Our trees are dying! And we depend upon them for so much - fruit, nuts, lumber, shade, habitat, and the most important CO2 sink, without which, temperatures will become unbearable.

It's time to demand rationing of fuel for only the most essential purposes while we transition to
clean energy on an EMERGENCY basis.

www.witsendnj.blogspot.com

Posted by Gail on 06 Dec 2010


Yet another major scientist in a parallel discipline to climate science re-states what we already know.

Humans are trashing this planet. We have to take a long hard look at how we treat the environment and realise we depend on it for our very existence.

We cannot continue to exploit our natural resources simply for our own benefit. We have to decide that human existance is not the most fundamental driving principle behind all our decisions and take on the mantle of steward of this world.

Posted by Ricki (Australia) on 07 Dec 2010


"We cannot continue to exploit our natural resources simply for our own benefit."

I wish I believed that we had the wisdom to seek another way forward but I see precious few signs of that. On the contrary, the collective fear we all can feel (if we pay attention to what scientists are saying) seems to be fuelling a snowballing epidemic of greed. In a capitalist, consumerism driven society where only money is sacred, it can be argued that it is perfectly rational, when facing a crisis, to try to get as much as you can before the riots begin.

So we can have folks on one side saying "do something to avert this environmental crisis, think of your children and grandchildren!" and we can have folks on the otherside saying "I AM thinking of my children and grandchildren and I am trying to make enough money to move into a walled community patrolled by private security guards, so that they will be safe when the crisis hits."

I think that we will inevitably over-exploit the resources available to us and our system as we know it will collapse. We are a clever animal but we are not as smart as we think we are.

Posted by Paul Rideout on 08 Dec 2010


Relax, people. There is ample geologic evidence all over the world that the oceans have been through greater changes than the miniscule amount of change caused by human CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Despite all the talk about "ocean acidification", do most of you even understand that the world's oceans are squarely on the alkaline side of the pH scale? The oceans are alkaline, not acidic. They are simply becoming less alkaline. Describing the situation as "acidification" rather than decreasing alkalinity is misleading.

But, in essence, its the same old thing I've come to expect from the modern environmental movement. Drum up fear using misinformation, data venue shopping/cherry picking, or simply fudging data in an attempt to reign in capitalism, free markets, and liberty. All in the name of saving the planet from something from which the planet needs no saving. Yawn.

All the same old arguments about carrying capacity, overpopulation, overconsumption of resources, etc. have been repeated over and over for generations, from Malthus to Ehrlich to present, and none of them ever come true.

If humans destroyed more than we create on balance, we'd have perished as a species long ago.

If we were destroying the earth and ourselves in the process, our life expectancy wouldn't have doubled in the developed world over the last 100 years.

Neo-Malthusians continue to recycle old ideas that have been proven wrong by empirical evidence, over and over and over again. New spin, same old fear mongering. When will you people ever learn?

There is much need for improvement in our environment, in air quality, water quality, etc. We have made great progress in the developed world but there is much more to be done.

In the developing world, there are still over 1 billion people living off less than $1/day, without adequate clean water, food, sanitation, basic medical care, and other life necessities. Your policies will condemn these people to continued poverty, even as you portray yourselves as saving them. Keeping them from developing economically by using fossil fuels consigns them to a life of poverty. Period.

Diverting environmental resources toward made up pseudo eco-crises (one after the other;
"biodiversity" is the next one now that "global warming" didn't work) merely diverts limited resources away from those areas still in need of improvement - and that directly impact human health and the environment - toward environmental issues that are all about politics and preferences and eco-religionism.

Posted by Carbonicus on 08 Dec 2010


Nature is not so delicate that a barely detectable shift in temp of pH destroys an ecosystem. If certain fauna are impaired, others benefit. The question that I have never seen answered is whether corals are expanding their range into cooler waters?

It would only make sense if the suppositions in the article are actually true.

Posted by Shoshin on 08 Dec 2010


Carbonicus and Shoshlin,

What is notable here is the rate of change, rather than the absolute values. We are altering the planet's geochemistry faster than, to our knowledge, at least any point within the past tens of millions of years. Organisms have no time to adapt.

As for corals potentially shifting their distributions to more polar latitudes, this is more intrinsically unlikely due to seawater carbon chemistry. Gases such as carbon dioxide dissolve more readily into colder seawater, so the chemistry of higher latitude waters are not ideal for reef-building corals because of the pH (high latitude waters are also more affected by ocean acidification for this reason as well).

Posted by Dusty on 08 Dec 2010


I am sure professor Veron's new book will sell very well, as we all know how well doom and gloom sell-Nostradamus is still a seller! But I do have to wonder if Professor Veron has been too much influenced by the film Acid Test; The Global challenge of Ocean Acidification, starring Sigourney Weaver, made by NRDC. For the actual science, please google CO2SCIENCE and check out their Ocean Acidification Database. Like the global warming fiasco,yet another storm in a teacup. I hope the professor is up to this challenge.

Posted by IAN HILLIAR on 09 Dec 2010


It is hard to understand why Dr. Veron is as concerned as he is about the possible demise of
coral reefs, at least to my understanding of the science. I'll give two reasons to keep it brief.

First, there are a number of journal articles which report on experiments in which corals are subjected to far higher levels of CO2 and thus lower pH ocean waters than today. Ries et al. 2010, (Coral Reefs, DOI 10.1007/s00338-010-0632-3, A nonlinear calcification response to CO2-induced ocean acidification by the coral Oculina arbuscula) show that there is little effect on coral calcification at CO2 levels up to 900 ppm CO2. At the absurdly high levels of 2,900 ppm, which results in undersaturation of aragonite, corals still actually increased calcification, didn't dissolve, but calcify at much reduced rates.

Secondly, corals are hundreds of millions of years old, but survived geologic eras with much
higher CO2 levels. One such time period, the end of the Eocene about 33 million years ago,
had CO2 levels of about 1,400 ppm for a few hundred thousand years. Corals continued to
grow though that time period.

I wouldn't dispute that there will be changes in relative densities of different creatures in a world with, say, 700 ppm CO2.

But if we are worried about wholesale destruction of ocean species, and tipping points among
relative densities of ocean species, we are already doing that extremely well, unfortunately,
with overfishing today.

The resulting negative changes in ocean ecosystems, is far worse than anything I can
imagine from 700 ppm CO2. Why are we skipping over today's very difficult and very
important ocean pollution and overfishing and trophic cascade problems to deal speculatively with a problem which seems, on the basis of present evidence, to be less harmful, and which depends on China and India CO2 policies in any case?

Posted by John on 09 Dec 2010


Dusty:

Your assertion re: rate of change is flawed. The meteor that ended the rule of the dinosaurs caused infinitely more massive oceanic changes in the blink of an eye, and corals managed to survive that.

Sorry, but I don't buy the "rate of change" argument.

Posted by Shoshin on 09 Dec 2010


Indeed, survive they did, after a tremendous reef gap.

If this is comparable to the KT bolide impact, then they will likely not recover within our species' time here.

Posted by Dusty on 09 Dec 2010


As the world's major ice sheets melt, ocean rise will, amongst other impacts, alter the location of areas where coral grows. We will lose most of the Great Barrier Reef, but perhaps new ones will grow where parts of Florida, Louisiania and Texas used to be.

Posted by Paul Fitzpatrick on 12 Dec 2010


So Doc, if you are so sure of your position, please explain this: http://climatedebatedaily.com/Ethical%20Defense.pdf

Don't expect much from you as I realize that climate alarmists have learned it is best not to appear foolish by engaging climate sceptics in actual debate.

Posted by Steve W from Ford on 12 Dec 2010


So, Steve W, I took a look at the link you posted, and I'm not impressed. To think that simply posting this link somehow discredits Veron's article seems silly and simplistic, and ultimately does little to further "actual debate."

The article you posted was published in the Reason Papers, which far from being a peer-reviewed academic journal is actually a libertarian publication. The sources they use are
extremely thin, only using peer-reviewed journals to set up quotes they then contradict,
rather than making their argument and then using peer-reviewed journals in support. In
effect, while they quote from peer-reviewed works, they don't actually use them to support
their views. They repeat the very old right-wing complaints of a supposedly "left-wing media," and rehash the thoroughly de-bunked "climate-gate" claims. The whole tone of the article is clear from the start: they have come to argue for climate skepticism--or, dare I say, denialsim, but under the guise of seeming to be "fair" and "academic."

In short, I don't see how your posting this article does much at all to further debate, and it clearly gives no one reason to dismiss Veron's article-- which is really what your post seemed to be all about.

Posted by Paul on 14 Dec 2010


I think we should ban the Use of Motor Vehicles and have government supply a vegetable Oil converted Transportation Buss for each Work place. Everyone use bikes and your Chevroleggs.
Posted by scott on 08 Jan 2011


Our lives are inheritently connected with the ocean. Coral reefs are the life-blood of the ocean, if they collapse, all marine species will be affected and that in turn affects ALL land-lock species. Many people and animals on land will suffer and perish. We are already seeing this in Africa with the rise in bush-meat demand due to the decrease in fish catches. Poverty rate will be greater as food becomes less accessible and more expensive. The ocean is our life-blood.

Posted by Lynn on 13 Apr 2011


Not a lot of good news on the horizon is there?
I've lived here on Epi Island in the Vanuatu group for the past 15 years and was dismayed to find that our reef is dieing. went for my first snorkel in 6 months or so (the winter period) and the magnificent and abundant coral we have always enjoyed is mostly dead. there are still plenty of small corals struggling on but the larger colonies, the ones that ran down the wall of the reef, have all but gone, just the calcified and mottled remains. I can't argue the science - have no credibility to enter the debate. But, the facts are undeniable. we have always felt like we were so far away from any industrialization. to my knowledge there have been no chemical spills around here - our island has no industry, just a couple of low key tourism ventures, but if this is happening here then there's not much hope for the rest of the world.... so, what can I do?

Posted by Rob Crapper on 12 Oct 2011


It is hard to understand why Dr. Veron is as concerned as he is about the possible demise of
coral reefs, at least to my understanding of the science. I'll give two reasons to keep it brief.

First, there are a number of journal articles which report on experiments in which corals are subjected to far higher levels of CO2 and thus lower pH ocean waters than today. Ries et al. 2010, (Coral Reefs, DOI 10.1007/s00338-010-0632-3, A nonlinear calcification response to CO2-induced ocean acidification by the coral Oculina arbuscula) show that there is little effect on coral calcification at CO2 levels up to 900 ppm CO2. At the absurdly high levels of 2,900 ppm, which results in undersaturation of aragonite, corals still actually increased calcification, didn't dissolve, but calcify at much reduced rates.

Secondly, corals are hundreds of millions of years old, but survived geologic eras with much
higher CO2 levels. One such time period, the end of the Eocene about 33 million years ago,
had CO2 levels of about 1,400 ppm for a few hundred thousand years. Corals continued to
grow though that time period.

I wouldn't dispute that there will be changes in relative densities of different creatures in a world with, say, 700 ppm CO2.

But if we are worried about wholesale destruction of ocean species, and tipping points among
relative densities of ocean species, we are already doing that extremely well, unfortunately,
with overfishing today.

The resulting negative changes in ocean ecosystems, is far worse than anything I can
imagine from 700 ppm CO2. Why are we skipping over today's very difficult and very
important ocean pollution and overfishing and trophic cascade problems to deal speculatively with a problem which seems, on the basis of present evidence, to be less harmful, and which depends on China and India CO2 policies in any case?

My blog: http://afiliadoselite20.net/

Posted by Andres Rodriguez on 02 Dec 2011


Is there a way to control COTs outbreak? Biologically?

Posted by Homer de DIos on 18 Dec 2011


Comments have been closed on this feature.
j.e.n. veronABOUT THE AUTHOR
J.E.N. Veron is former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the author of numerous books, including the three-volume Corals of the World. His research has taken him to all the major coral reef regions of the world during 66 expeditions. His latest book is A Reef in Time: The Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End.

 
 

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Colorado River Video
In a Yale Environment 360 video, photographer Pete McBride documents how increasing water demands have transformed the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the arid Southwest. Watch the video.

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