Crumbling reefs and cold-water coral habitat loss in a future ocean: evidence of “coralporosis” as an indicator of habitat integrity

Ocean acidification is a threat to the net growth of tropical and deep-sea coral reefs, due to gradual changes in the balance between reef growth and loss processes. Here we go beyond identification of coral dissolution induced by ocean acidification and identify a mechanism that will lead to a loss of habitat in cold-water coral reef habitats on an ecosystem-scale. To quantify this, we present in situ and year-long laboratory evidence detailing the type of habitat shift that can be expected (in situ evidence), the mechanisms underlying this (in situ and laboratory evidence), and the timescale within which the process begins (laboratory evidence). Through application of engineering principals, we detail how increased porosity in structurally critical sections of coral framework will lead to crumbling of load-bearing material, and a potential collapse and loss of complexity of the larger habitat. Importantly, in situ evidence highlights that cold-water corals can survive beneath the aragonite saturation horizon, but in a fundamentally different way to what is currently considered a biogenic cold-water coral reef, with a loss of the majority of reef habitat. The shift from a habitat with high 3-dimensional complexity provided by both live and dead coral framework, to a habitat restricted primarily to live coral colonies with lower 3-dimensional complexity represents the main threat to cold-water coral reefs of the future and the biodiversity they support. Ocean acidification can cause ecosystem-scale habitat loss for the majority of cold-water coral reefs.

Hennige S. J., Wolfram U., Wickes L., Murray F., Roberts J. M., Kamenos N. A., Schofield S., Groetsch A., Spiesz E. M., Aubin-Tam M-E. & Etnoyer P. J., 2020. Crumbling reefs and cold-water coral habitat loss in a future ocean: evidence of “coralporosis” as an indicator of habitat integrity. Frontiers in Marine Science 7: 668. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2020.00668. Article.

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