Recently we took a look at the most recent coral bleaching event in Great Barrier Reef will never be the same. John D subsequently sent me a link to an article Obituaries for coral reefs may be premature, study finds by John Pandolfi, Professor, School of Biological Sciences, at The University of Queensland.
So I thought we should take a closer look.
Pandolfi’s bottom line is:
- While climate still remains a potentially deadly threat to much of the world’s coral reefs, combining this new study with these recent results means that predicting the global demise of reefs within the next couple of decades may be a bit premature. It’s more likely that, although reefs will be severely degraded, there will be large variability in their response to climate change.
Some corals will likely survive, providing the basis for recovery.
Pandolfi is definitely more optimistic than Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director of the Global Change Institute and Professor of Marine Science at the University of Queensland, who told Emma Griffiths on local radio that under business as usual there would be no corals by about 2030 to 2040, just slime. Under a vigorous climate mitigation regime to limit warming to 2°C, some but not all would survive. Reefs would be severely degraded.
Pandolfi seems to be saying that under business as usual some reefs will survive.
The first was a study of 21 reefs in the Seychelles devastated to more than 90% in the coral bleaching event of 1998. Nine reefs underwent regime shifts to fleshy macroalgae but 12 substantially recovered. The authors found that more complex reefs in deeper water recovered.
The NS article makes clear, however, that recovery did not start to any observable degree until after 2006. The concern is that by 2030 we may have bleaching conditions every few years, or indeed every year. Given the trajectory of global surface temperatures since the 1970s you’d have to think that might be right:
The other research was by Malcolm McCulloch and associates of the University of Western Australia who
found that each of the individual polyps that make up corals isolates a drop of water inside its body, and de-acidifies it by removing hydrogen ions. This allows corals to build their reefs about 100 times faster than they could in ordinary seawater.
They found that some polyps had this ability, not all. He and his team concluded that “acidification had about half the impact on coral reef building than previously thought.”
McCulloch’s work was published in 2012, Pandolfi’s was in January 2015, the New Scientist article was in June 2015.
Sophie Dove supervises a Reefs of the Future project under Hoegh-Guldberg where coral reefs in tanks at Heron Island are subjected to temperature and acidic conditions some of which which mimic business as usual scenario, others mimic a vigorous climate mitigation scenario. In February 2013 she and her colleagues said this:
- Some argue that the threat is mitigated by factors such as the variability in the response of coral calcification to acidification, differences in bleaching susceptibility, and the potential for rapid adaptation to anthropogenic warming. However the evidence for these mitigating factors tends to involve experimental studies on corals, as opposed to coral reefs, and rarely includes the influence of multiple variables (e.g., temperature and acidification) within regimes that include diurnal and seasonal variability. Here, we demonstrate that the inclusion of all these factors results in the decalcification of patch-reefs under business-as-usual scenarios and reduced, although positive, calcification under reduced-emission scenarios.
They are saying that’s how it happens in the real world.
Their research was reported in The Conversation later that year.
A recent study by Mathieu Mongin et al, reported at Carbon Brief, looked at over 3000 actual reefs in the GBR at 22 sites. They found aragonite saturation levels, necessary for reef building, varied more than expected and were lower than expected. They found that CO2 levels were not the main driver of difference, rather local factors, such as “how the water circulates, the amount of biological activity and how much freshwater is delivered by nearby rivers, among other factors” had more influence. Nevertheless in some places aragonite levels were already as low as expected by the end of the century under a high emissions scenario. This leaves them with increased vulnerability when acidification cuts in.
So the situation is worse than than previously thought, according to them, though I think they concentrated on the inner reef. However, their bottom line was that “even the full implementation of the Paris Agreement will bear high risk for warm-water corals and coral reefs.” I reported on this study in Climate clippings 166, Item 5.
I’ve been citing a study published in 2013 by K. Frieler et al which found that:
- preserving more than 10 per cent of coral reefs worldwide would require limiting warming to below +1.5°C (atmosphere–ocean general circulation models (AOGCMs) range: 1.3–1.8°C) relative to pre-industrial levels.
They found that “increasing global temperatures to 2°C above pre-industrial global temperatures will be too hot for two-thirds of the world’s corals and reefs.”
Commentary on that study included:
“However, corals themselves have all the wrong characteristics to be able to rapidly evolve new thermal tolerances,” says co-author Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a marine biologist at the University of Queensland in Australia. “They have long lifecycles of 5-100 years and they show low levels of diversity due to the fact that corals can reproduce by cloning themselves. They are not like fruit flies which can evolve much faster.”
Threats to reefs include water quality and turbidity, bleaching, acidification, disease and predators such as the crown of thorns starfish, cyclones, and overfishing, not to mention the use of explosives and cyanide, still common in Asia.
Coral reefs have been around for hundreds of millions of years. J.E.N. “Charlie” Veron, former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, has probably seen more reefs than anyone else in the world. In researching his 2010 book he looked at the palaeontological evidence from major extinction events. Reefs were devastated on each occasion and took millions of years to recover.
Veron thinks acidification is a bigger danger than bleaching. I suspect its the other way around, at least in the near term.
Whatever happens in what sequence, reefs are in significant danger during the life-times of today’s children.
For information, here’s a map of reefs at risk from the NS article sourced from the World Resources Institute:
As I write we have now seen the first part of Sir David Attenborough’s three-part documentary on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Hoegh-Guldberg told Emma Griffiths that 10 million people watched the series in the UK. Hoegh-Guldberg says that he’s be pleased if a few hundred read a research paper.
Hunt should have watched the whole series. Apparently this is how it ends:
- “The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger,” Attenborough says. If temperatures continue to rise at the present rate it will be gone with in decades. What was once unthinkable is now happening on our watch. At the end of this series – perhaps Attenborough’s last big on-the-road documentary – he says without hyperbole, “That would be a global catastrophe.”