IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

C2.2 Future impacts on coral reefs

C2.2.1 Are coral reefs endangered by climate change? (Chapter 4, Box 4.4)

Reefs are habitat for about a quarter of all marine species and are the most diverse among marine ecosystems (Roberts et al., 2002; Buddemeier et al., 2004). They underpin local shore protection, fisheries, tourism (see Chapter 6; Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2000; Cesar et al., 2003; Willig et al., 2003; Hoegh-Guldberg, 2004, 2005) and, although supplying only about 2-5% of the global fisheries harvest, comprise a critical subsistence protein and income source in the developing world (Whittingham et al., 2003; Pauly et al., 2005; Sadovy, 2005).

Corals are affected by warming of surface waters (see C2.1.2; Reynaud et al., 2003; McNeil et al., 2004; McWilliams et al., 2005) leading to bleaching (loss of algal symbionts; see C2.1.2). Many studies incontrovertibly link coral bleaching to warmer sea surface temperature (e.g., McWilliams et al., 2005), and mass bleaching and coral mortality often results beyond key temperature thresholds (see C2.1.2). Annual or bi-annual exceedance of bleaching thresholds is projected at the majority of reefs worldwide by 2030 to 2050 (Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999; Sheppard, 2003; Donner et al., 2005). After bleaching, algae quickly colonise dead corals, possibly inhibiting later coral recruitment (e.g., McClanahan et al., 2001; Szmant, 2001; Gardner et al., 2003; Jompa and McCook, 2003). Modelling predicts a phase switch to algal dominance on the Great Barrier Reef and Caribbean reefs in 2030 to 2050 (Wooldridge et al., 2005).

Coral reefs will also be affected by rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations (Orr et al., 2005; Raven et al., 2005; Denman et al., 2007, Box 7.3) resulting in declining calcification. Experiments at expected aragonite concentrations demonstrated a reduction in coral calcification (Marubini et al., 2001; Langdon et al., 2003; Hallock, 2005), coral skeleton weakening (Marubini et al., 2003) and strong temperature dependence (Reynaud et al., 2003). Oceanic pH projections decrease at a greater rate and to a lower level than experienced over the past 20 million years (Caldeira and Wickett, 2003; Raven et al., 2005; Turley et al., 2006). Doubling CO2 will reduce calcification in aragonitic corals by 20%-60% (Kleypas et al., 1999; Kleypas and Langdon, 2002; Reynaud et al., 2003; Raven et al., 2005). By 2070 many reefs could reach critical aragonite saturation states (Feely et al., 2004; Orr et al., 2005), resulting in reduced coral cover and greater erosion of reef frameworks (Kleypas et al., 2001; Guinotte et al., 2003).

Figure C2.2

Figure C2.2. Alternative hypotheses concerning the threshold SST at which coral bleaching occurs: (a) invariant threshold for coral bleaching (red line) which occurs when SST exceeds usual seasonal maximum threshold (by ~1°C) and mortality (dashed red line, threshold of 2°C), with local variation due to different species or water depth; (b) elevated threshold for bleaching (green line) and mortality (dashed green line) where corals adapt or acclimatise to increased SST (based on Hughes et al., 2003).

Adaptation potential (Hughes et al., 2003) by reef organisms requires further experimental and applied study (Coles and Brown, 2003; Hughes et al., 2003). Natural adaptive shifts to symbionts with +2°C resistance may delay the demise of some reefs until roughly 2100 (Sheppard, 2003), rather than mid-century (Hoegh-Guldberg, 2005) although this may vary widely across the globe (Donner et al., 2005). Estimates of warm-water coral cover reduction in the last 20-25 years are 30% or higher (Wilkinson, 2004; Hoegh-Guldberg, 2005) due largely to increasing higher SST frequency (Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999). In some regions, such as the Caribbean, coral losses have been estimated at 80% (Gardner et al., 2003). Coral migration to higher latitudes with more optimal SST is unlikely, due both to latitudinally decreasing aragonite concentrations and projected atmospheric CO2 increases (Kleypas et al., 2001; Guinotte et al., 2003; Orr et al., 2005; Raven et al., 2005). Coral migration is also limited by lack of available substrate (see C2.2.2). Elevated SST and decreasing aragonite have a complex synergy (Harvell et al., 2002; Reynaud et al., 2003; McNeil et al., 2004; Kleypas et al., 2005) but could produce major coral reef changes (Guinotte et al., 2003; Hoegh-Guldberg, 2005). Corals could become rare on tropical and sub-tropical reefs by 2050 due to the combined effects of increasing CO2 and increasing frequency of bleaching events (at 2-3 * CO2) (Kleypas and Langdon, 2002; Hoegh-Guldberg, 2005; Raven et al., 2005). Other climate change factors (such as sea-level rise, storm impact and aerosols) and non-climate factors (such as over-fishing, invasion of non-native species, pollution, nutrient and sediment load (although this could also be related to climate change through changes to precipitation and river flow; see C2.1.2 and C2.2.3; Chapter 16)) add multiple impacts on coral reefs (see C2.3.1), increasing their vulnerability and reducing resilience to climate change (Koop et al., 2001; Kleypas and Langdon, 2002; Cole, 2003; Buddemeier et al., 2004; Hallock, 2005).