New Research Find Climate Inaction Will Cause Permanent Unsuitable Conditions for Coral Reefs

Newswise — There’s more bad news for planet earth if climate change continues unabated. New research published on October 11th in the open-access journal PLOS Biology by researchers at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, United States, reveals that, under a worst-case scenario, half of the coral reef ecosystems worldwide will permanently face unsuitable conditions in just a dozen years.

The ability of ecosystems to adapt to changes within their environment largely depends upon the type and impact of their specific environmental stressors. Coral reefs, in particular, are sensitive to these unsuitable environmental conditions. However, the timeline for environmental suitability has been up for debate.

Utilizing CMIP5, is an experimental framework that computes global models to improve climate change knowledge. Therefore, researchers looked at global projections of five environmental stressors from historic scenarios through to projections for the year 2100. These stressors included sea surface temperature, ocean acidification, tropical storm, land use, and human population projections.

“While the negative impacts of climate change on coral reefs are well known, this research shows that they are actually worse than anticipated due to a broad combination of climate change-induced stressors,” said lead author Renee Setter, a doctoral student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

Setter adds it was also enlightening to find that coral will face multiple stressors – posing an even greater hurdle and challenge.

Coral Reef Research Findings

Setter and colleagues found that, under the business-as-usual scenario, 2050 is the median year. Moreover, experts are projecting that environmental conditions will become unsuitable for the world’s coral reefs due to looking at a single stressor. When considering multiple stressors, the date falls to 2035. Additionally, by 2055, they project that most of the world’s coral reefs (99 percent) will face unsuitable conditions. That’s based on at least one of the five stressors studied. By 2100, scientists are anticipating that 93 percent of global reefs will be under threat by two or more of the stressors identified by the researchers.

“We know that corals are vulnerable to increasing sea surface temperatures and marine heatwaves due to climate change. But it is important to include the complete anthropogenic impact and numerous stressors that coral reefs are exposed to in order to get a better sense of the overall risks to these ecosystems,” added co-author Erik Franklin, Associate Research Professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. “This has great implications for our local Hawaiian reefs that are key to local biodiversity, culture, fisheries, and tourism.”

The research team is now preparing to enter the next phase of their work. They will take a closer look and project how climate change will affect individual coral species. The team is identifying which species are more likely to survive unsuitable conditions and which may be more vulnerable. With this information, they hope to better understand which species may be more at risk of future stressors.

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