The importance of the terrestrial weathering feedback for multi-millennial coral reef habitat recovery

Modern-day coral reefs have well defined environmental envelopes for light, sea surface temperature (SST) and seawater aragonite saturation state (Ωarag). We examine the changes in global coral reef habitat on multi-millennial timescales with regard to SST and Ωarag using a climate model including a three-dimensional ocean general circulation model, a fully coupled carbon cycle, and six different parameterizations for continental weathering (the UVic Earth System Climate Model). The model is forced with emission scenarios ranging from 1,000 Pg C to 5,000 Pg C total emissions. We find that the long-term climate change response is independent of the rate at which CO2 is emitted over the next few centuries. On millennial timescales, the weathering feedback introduces a significant uncertainty even for low emission scenarios. Weathering parameterizations based on atmospheric CO2 only display a different transient response than weathering parameterizations that are dependent on temperature. Although environmental conditions for SST and Ωarag stay globally hostile for coral reefs for millennia for our high emission scenarios, some weathering parameterizations induce a near-complete recovery of coral reef habitat to current conditions after 10,000 years, while others result in a collapse of coral reef habitat throughout our simulations. We find that the multi-millennial response in sea surface temperature (SST) substantially lags the aragonite saturation recovery in all configurations. This implies that if corals can naturally adapt over millennia by selecting thermally tolerant species to match warmer ocean temperatures, prospects for long-term recovery of coral reefs are better since Ωarag recovers more quickly than SST.

Meissner K. J., McNeil B. I., Eby M. & Wiebe E., in press. The importance of the terrestrial weathering feedback for multi-millennial coral reef habitat recovery. Global Biogeochemical Cycles. doi:10.1029/2011GB004098. Article (subscription required).

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