Impacts of climate change on coral in the coastal and marine environments of Caribbean Small Island Developing States (SIDS)

Coral reefs are integral to life in the Caribbean – providing protection from storms, sustaining national economies and livelihoods through tourism and fishing, and supporting culture, recreation and biodiversity conservation. Over a decade ago, their value was estimated at US$3.1 – 4.6 billion each year.

Climate change is already impacting coral reefs in the Caribbean, through coral bleaching, disease outbreaks, ocean acidification and physical damage from stronger hurricanes. Coral beaching is the most visible, wide-spread and iconic manifestation of climate change on reefs, with major events in the Caribbean in 1998, 2010 and 2015/16. The extent of bleaching and associated mortality varies by location and event, but has resulted in some mortality. Coral disease has already significantly altered the community composition of reefs in the Caribbean, and is projected to result in increasing frequency of outbreaks as seas warm. The lack of a centralized database to coordinate reef monitoring information, hampers efforts to measure these effects.

Ocean acidification is a direct chemical result of increased carbon dioxide, but it has a variety of different responses in different reef organisms. Corals are the brick foundations of the reef, with crustose coralline algae as their mortar. Both these critical functional groups are already being affected by the reduced pH of surface water, making it more difficult to calcify and grow.

Future impacts are expected to follow and accelerate on these trends.

By 2040–2043 projections are for the onset of annual severe bleaching, which would likely result in significant coral mortality. Disease outbreaks are predicted to become annual events several years earlier. Projections for future ocean acidification result in ocean carbonate saturation levels potentially dropping below those required to sustain coral reef accretion by 2050. Cutting emissions in CO2 (within RCP6.0) would buy many coral reefs a couple of decades more time before the worst impacts occur, but it delays rather than mitigates the threats posed to coral reefs by acidification and bleaching (Maynard et al, 2016).

National leaders of the Caribbean need to adamantly fight for CO2 emissions reductions, and ensure their reef management agencies take all precautionary measures needed to reduce local stress on their reefs to buy them additional time and resiliency potential for withstanding the stress of climate change.

McField M., 2017. Impacts of climate change on coral in the coastal and marine environments of Caribbean Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Caribbean Marine Climate Change Report Card: Science Review 52-59. Article.

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