Coral adaptive capacity insufficient to halt global transition of coral reefs into net erosion under climate change

Projecting the effects of climate change on net reef calcium carbonate production is critical to understanding the future impacts on ecosystem function, but prior estimates have not included corals’ natural adaptive capacity to such change. Here we estimate how the ability of symbionts to evolve tolerance to heat stress, or for coral hosts to shuffle to favourable symbionts, and their combination, may influence responses to the combined impacts of ocean warming and acidification under three representative concentration pathway (RCP) emissions scenarios (RCP2.6, RCP4.5 and RCP8.5). We show that symbiont evolution and shuffling, both individually and when combined, favours persistent positive net reef calcium carbonate production. However, our projections of future net calcium carbonate production (NCCP) under climate change vary both spatially and by RCP. For example, 19%–35% of modelled coral reefs are still projected to have net positive NCCP by 2050 if symbionts can evolve increased thermal tolerance, depending on the RCP. Without symbiont adaptive capacity, the number of coral reefs with positive NCCP drops to 9%–13% by 2050. Accounting for both symbiont evolution and shuffling, we project median positive NCPP of coral reefs will still occur under low greenhouse emissions (RCP2.6) in the Indian Ocean, and even under moderate emissions (RCP4.5) in the Pacific Ocean. However, adaptive capacity will be insufficient to halt the transition of coral reefs globally into erosion by 2050 under severe emissions scenarios (RCP8.5).

Cornwall C. E., Comeau S., Donner S. D., Perry C., Dunne J., van Hooidonk R., Ryan S., & Logan C. A., in press. Coral adaptive capacity insufficient to halt global transition of coral reefs into net erosion under climate change. Global Change Biology. Article.  


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