Coral Reefs Being Destroyed By Global Warming, Ocean Acidification

Washington, DC (AHN) – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday that new research finds carbon emissions are threatening coral reefs. The findings are timely as 2008 is the International Year of the Reef.

According to a statement from NOAA released Thursday, a group of 18 leading scientist in international coral reef research have found the source of the threat to coral reefs. They blame steadily rising global temperatures and an increase in acidification of oceans from increased carbon dioxide emissions for creating conditions that pose such a threat to coral that they could begin to disappear from the earth in 50 to 75 years.

In findings published in today’s peer reviewed journal Science, the scientists “argue that rising global CO2 emissions represent an ‘irreducible risk’ that will rapidly outstrip the capacity of local coastal managers and policy-makers to maintain the health of these critical ecosystems, if CO2 emissions are allowed to continue unchecked,” NOAA said in a statement.

NOAA Coral Reef Watch Coordinator Mark Eakin said in the statement that he, and 17 other coral scientists, found that increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide are warming and acidifying the oceans. He said the impacts of that warming and acidification “will be dramatic.”

With coral reef ecosystems beginning to “disappear within the next 50 to 75 years,” it will have “devastating impacts on marine biodiversity and human livelihoods, especially in developing nations that depend on reefs for much of their economic well being,” Eakin said.

A University of South Florida College of Marine Science professor in St. Petersburg thinks that Eakin and his colleagues may be too optimistic.

In a telephone interview with AHN on Thursday, Dr. Pamela Hallock Muller, professor of Biogeological Oceanography, made that comment and explained why coral reefs are important to people and what their loss could mean.

While acknowledging that there are still people who dispute that global warming is occurring and blame sun spot activity for rising temperatures, Muller said that she isn’t an expert on sun spot activity, but she does write about ocean acidification. From everything she sees: Basically, I think Mark [Eakin] and company are spot on with the possible exception that they’re too optimistic,” the professor said.

“Certainly in some areas of the Indo-Pacific the coral reefs will continue to do OK for a while,” she continued, adding that coral reefs would probably also be all right in deeper water, but not in the shallow water that contains coral reefs teeming with fish, plants and sea animals “where people like to snorkel.”

Muller pointed to the situation of the coral reefs in the Florida Keys, which she first visited in 1980. She said that even before global warming began causing problems for the coral that other human related problems, such as disease, which caused sea urchins to die off, had begun killing the coral there in the 1970s.

However, she said that in the last 10 years the reefs there have lost about 30 percent of their cover and noted that coral cover of the reefs in the Keys is now down to about 6 percent.

As mentioned, Muller writes about ocean acidification, which she said is caused because oceans pick up the CO2 that is put into the atmosphere when people burn fossil fuels.

“I think ocean acidification is probably the greatest threat to the reefs,” she said.

The professor described how the process of ocean acidification occurs.

People burn fossil fuels, which puts CO2 into the atmosphere, the oceans pick up and absorb the CO2 and that makes the ocean more acidic, and “that acidity makes it more difficult for the corals to build. It means that they probably will not be able to build reefs except in very local areas,” Muller said.

Then she explained the reasons that the fate of coral reefs matters to people.

“A huge proportion of developing world people live in coastal regions where a huge number of people depend on fish resources coming off the reefs, so just food, that’s the first thing,” she said.

But there is also protection, for people who live in coastal areas prone to hurricanes, such as Florida, the importance of coral reefs might not be felt until coral reefs aren’t there to protect buildings and lives.

“As sea levels rise, a healthy reef can keep up with that by building more reef … and can continue to protect our shorelines, but without that reef building, the shore lines that are protected by reefs will be doubly in trouble,” Muller said.

“They will lose the protection offered by the offshore reefs [against incoming storms].” Muller said, and explained that without the protection of offshore coral reefs there is nothing to break, stop and dissipate huge waves rolling in off the ocean from a big storm.

Coral reefs help to absorb the huge energy from waves during a hurricane, she said, and gave the example of the ecosystems offshore Miami as an example of why coral reefs were important to people and why the decline of coral reefs was a troubling development.

Miami has an offshore reef, then a barrier island, sea grass and mangroves.

During a hurricane, “the waves that are coming in off the ocean are weakened first by reefs, then the islands, then the mangroves. As the storm surge comes in the storm surge is weakened by all those things,” Muller said.

The mangroves, sea grass and coral reefs form interdependent ecosystems that slow down storm surges, protect people and result in less damage to property, Muller said.

Coral reefs, sea grass and mangroves “all protect us from the ocean but the mangroves and the sea grass protect reefs from people, from our pollution so all the systems are very, very important,” Muller said.

Linda Young, AHN, 13 December 2007. Article.

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