Co-occurring anthropogenic stressors reduce the timeframe of environmental viability for the world’s coral reefs

Anthropogenic disturbances are posing unprecedented challenges to the persistence of ecosystems worldwide. The speed at which these disturbances reach an ecosystem’s tolerance thresholds will determine the time available for adaptation and conservation. Here, we aim to calculate the year after which a given environmental stressor permanently exceeds the bounds of an ecosystem’s tolerance. Ecosystem thresholds are here defined as limits in a given stressor beyond which ecosystems have showed considerable changes in community assembly and functioning, becoming remnants of what they once were, but not necessarily leading to species extirpation or extinction. Using the world’s coral reefs as a case example, we show that the projected effects of marine heatwaves, ocean acidification, storms, land-based pollution, and local human stressors are being underestimated considerably by looking at disturbances independently. Given the spatial complementarity in which numerous disturbances impact the world’s coral reefs, we show that the timelines of environmental suitability are halved when all disturbances are analyzed simultaneously, as opposed to independently. Under business-as-usual scenarios, the median year after which environmental conditions become unsuitable for the world’s remaining coral reefs was, at worse, 2050 for any one disturbance alone (28 years left); but when analyzed concurrently, this date was shortened to 2035 (13 years left). When analyzed together, disturbances reduced the date of environmental suitability because areas that may remain suitable under one disturbance could become unsuitable by any of several other variables. The significance of co-occurring disturbances at reducing timeframes of environmental suitability was evident even under optimistic scenarios. The best-case scenario, characterized by strong mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and optimistic human development, resulted in 41% of global coral reefs with unsuitable conditions by 2100 under any one disturbance independently; yet when analyzed in combination up to 64% of the world’s coral reefs could face unsuitable environmental conditions by one disturbance or another. Under the worst-case scenario, nearly all coral reef ecosystems worldwide (approximately 99%) will permanently face unsuitable conditions by 2055 in at least one of the disturbances analyzed. Prior studies have indicated the projected dire effects of climate change on coral reefs by mid-century; by analyzing a multitude of projected disturbances, our study reveals a much more severe prognosis for the world’s coral reefs as they have significantly less time to adapt while highlighting the urgent need to tackle available solutions to human disturbances.

Setter R. O., Franklin E. C. & Mora C., 2022. Co-occurring anthropogenic stressors reduce the timeframe of environmental viability for the world’s coral reefs. PLoS Biology 20(10): e3001821. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001821. Article.

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