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New Science Paper Says Carbon Emissions Threaten Coral Reefs

December 13, 2007

sea fan

Common sea fan (Gorgonia ventalina).

+ High Resolution (Credit: NOAA)

NOAA Coral Reef Watch coordinator Mark Eakin, and 17 fellow coral scientists from around the globe say corals could begin to disappear in 50 to 75 years due to steadily warming temperatures and increasing ocean acidification caused by carbon dioxide emissions. Their findings were published today as the cover story in the peer-reviewed journal Science.

"Our findings are simple.  Increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide are warming and acidifying the oceans,” said Eakin, who will discuss the Science paper findings Friday afternoon at the annual American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco. “The impacts will be dramatic. Coral reef ecosystems will begin to disappear within the next 50 to 75 years.  Warming and acidification will have devastating impacts on marine biodiversity and human livelihoods, especially in developing nations that depend on reefs for much of their economic well being."

On the eve of the International Year of the Reef 2008, the scientists from seven countries are warning that most coral reefs will not survive the rapid increases in global temperatures and atmospheric CO2 that are forecast over this century by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change unless drastic action is taken to curb CO2 emissions. Even emission curbs will not be enough without concerted management of other threats to these ecosystems.

The scientists, who are leading members of the international Coral Reef Targeted Research & Capacity Building for Management Program of which NOAA is a member, argue that rising global CO2 emissions represent an ‘irreducible risk’ that will rapidly outstrip the capacity of local coastal managers and policy-makers to maintain the health of these critical ecosystems, if CO2 emissions are allowed to continue unchecked.

The warmer and more acidic oceans threaten to destroy coral reef ecosystems, exposing people to flooding, coastal erosion and the loss of food and income from reef-based fisheries and tourism," says the paper's lead author, Ove Hoegh-Guldeberg of the University of Queensland in Australia.  "It is estimated that coral reef-related tourism generates tens of billions of dollars per year worldwide. They are the economic engine of a vast number of economies around the world.

Under guidance from the NOAA co-chaired US Coral Reef Task Force, ecosystem managers at the local level have been devising "local action plans" to cope with coral bleaching impacts. Developing partnerships with the World Bank and others, local managers have been seeking to reduce over fishing, pollution and unsustainable coastal development - the major local environmental threats caused by human activity.

coral reef

Effects of increaseing carbon dioxide and temperature on coral reefs.

+ High Resolution (Credit: Coral Reef Targeted Research and Capcity Building for Management Program)

One of the important tools these managers have been using is the NOAA Coral Reef Watch warning system, which was launched in 2000. It includes providing managers with automated e-mail alerts when NOAA satellite observations indicate rising water temperature beyond critical limits, conditions warranting extra measures to reduce stress on the local reefs.

NOAA’s polar-orbiting operational satellites are a key part of the warning system.  NOAA recently expanded the warning system adding 36 new virtual stations designed to monitor conditions that can lead to coral bleaching and reef disease or death. The new virtual stations, while currently in an experimental phase, more than double the available monitoring stations of coral ecosystems, increasing from 24 to 60 sites.

"The data collected from the coral reef components of the developing integrated ocean observing system are documenting the increase in water temperature caused by global warming and providing additional measures of the impacts of human activity on corals," notes Eakin. "Corals are the sentinel of the seas and it is critical for us to listen and make adaptive responses to the warnings they are giving us."

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of our nation's coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, more than 70 countries and the European Commission to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.