Ocean acidification affects coral growth by reducing skeletal density

Significance

Ocean acidification (OA) threatens coral reef futures by reducing the concentration of carbonate ions that corals need to construct their skeletons. However, quantitative predictions of reef futures under OA are confounded by mixed responses of corals to OA in experiments and field observations. We modeled the skeletal growth of a dominant reef-building coral, Porites, as a function of seawater chemistry and validated the model against observational data. We show that OA directly and negatively affects one component of the two-step growth process (density) but not the other (linear extension). Combining our growth model with Global Climate Model output, we show that skeletal density of Porites corals could decline by up to 20.3% over the 21st century solely due to OA.

Abstract

Ocean acidification (OA) is considered an important threat to coral reef ecosystems, because it reduces the availability of carbonate ions that reef-building corals need to produce their skeletons. However, while theory predicts that coral calcification rates decline as carbonate ion concentrations decrease, this prediction is not consistently borne out in laboratory manipulation experiments or in studies of corals inhabiting naturally low-pH reefs today. The skeletal growth of corals consists of two distinct processes: extension (upward growth) and densification (lateral thickening). Here, we show that skeletal density is directly sensitive to changes in seawater carbonate ion concentration and thus, to OA, whereas extension is not. We present a numerical model of Porites skeletal growth that links skeletal density with the external seawater environment via its influence on the chemistry of coral calcifying fluid. We validate the model using existing coral skeletal datasets from six Porites species collected across five reef sites and use this framework to project the impact of 21st century OA on Porites skeletal density across the global tropics. Our model predicts that OA alone will drive up to 20.3 ± 5.4% decline in the skeletal density of reef-building Porites corals.

Mollica N. R., Guo W., Cohen A. L., Huang K.-F., Foster G. L., Donald H. K. & Solow A. R., in press. Ocean acidification affects coral growth by reducing skeletal density. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United Sciences of America. Article (subscription required).

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