Coral calcification under ocean acidification and global change

Coral reefs are unique marine ecosystems that form huge morphological structures (frameworks) in today’s oceans. These include coral islands (atolls), barrier reefs, and fringing reefs that form the most impressive products of CaCO3 biomineralization. The framework builders are mainly hermatypic corals, calcareous algae, foraminifera, and mollusks that together are responsible for almost 50% of the net annual CaCO3 precipitation in the oceans. The reef ecosystem acts as a huge filtration system that extracts plankton from the vast fluxes of ocean water that flow through the framework. The existence of these wave resistant structures in spite of chemical, biological, and physical erosion depends on their exceedingly high rates of calcification. Coral mortality due to bleaching (caused by global warming) and ocean acidification caused by atmospheric CO2 increase are now the major threats to the existence of these unique ecosystems. When the rates of dissolution and erosion become higher than the rates of precipitation, the entire coral ecosystem starts to collapse and will eventually be reduced to piles of rubble while its magnificent and high diversity fauna will vanish. The loss to nature and to humanity would be unprecedented and it may occur within the next 50 years. In this chapter, we discuss the issue of ocean acidification and its major effects of corals from the cell level to the reef communities. Based on the recently published literature, it can be generalized that calcification in corals is strongly reduced when seawater become slightly acidified. Ocean acidification lowers both the pH and the CO32− ion concentration in the surface ocean, but calcification at the organism level responds mainly to CO32− and not to pH. Most reports show that the symbiotic algae are not sensitive to changes in the carbonate chemistry. The potential mechanisms responsible for coral sensitivity to acidification are either direct input of seawater to the biomineralization site or high sensitivity of the enzymes involved in calcification to pH and/or CO2 concentrations. Increase in pH at the biomineralization site is most probably the most energy demanding process that is influenced by ocean acidification. While hermatypic corals and other calcifiers reduce their rates of calcification, chemical and biological dissolution increase and hence net calcification of the entire coral reef is decreasing dramatically. Community metabolism in several sites and in field enclosures show in some cases net dissolution. Using the relations between aragonite saturation (Ωarag) and community calcification, it is possible to predict that coral reefs globally may start to dissolve when atmospheric CO2 doubles.

Erez J., Reynaud S., Silverman J., Schneider K., & Allemand D., 2011. Coral calcification under ocean acidification and global change. In: Dubinsky Z., & Stambler N. (Eds.), Coral Reefs: An Ecosystem in Transition, pp. 151-176. Berlin: Springer. Book chapter (subscription required).

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