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

C2. Impacts of climate change on coral reefs

C2.1 Present-day changes in coral reefs

C2.1.1 Observed changes in coral reefs (Chapter 1, Section

Concerns about the impacts of climate change on coral reefs centre on the effects of the recent trends in increasing acidity (via increasing CO2), storm intensity, and sea surface temperatures (see Bindoff et al., 2007, Section; Trenberth et al., 2007, Sections 3.8.3 and 3.2.2).

Decreasing pH (see C2.2.1) leads to a decreased aragonite saturation state, one of the main physicochemical determinants of coral calcification (Kleypas et al., 1999). Although laboratory experiments have demonstrated a link between aragonite saturation state and coral growth (Langdon et al., 2000; Ohde and Hossain, 2004), there are currently no data relating altered coral growth in situ to increasing acidity.

Storms damage coral directly through wave action and indirectly through light attenuation by suspended sediment and abrasion by sediment and broken corals. Most studies relate to individual storm events, but a meta-analysis of data from 1977 to 2001 showed that coral cover on Caribbean reefs decreased by 17% on average in the year following a hurricane, with no evidence of recovery for at least 8 years post-impact (Gardner et al., 2005). Stronger hurricanes caused more coral loss, but the second of two successive hurricanes caused little additional damage, suggesting a greater future effect from increasing hurricane intensity rather than from increasing frequency (Gardner et al., 2005).

There is now extensive evidence of a link between coral bleaching – a whitening of corals as a result of the expulsion of symbiotic zooxanthellae (see C2.1.2) – and sea surface temperature anomalies (McWilliams et al., 2005). Bleaching usually occurs when temperatures exceed a ‘threshold’ of about 0.8-1°C above mean summer maximum levels for at least 4 weeks (Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999). Regional-scale bleaching events have increased in frequency since the 1980s (Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999). In 1998, the largest bleaching event to date is estimated to have killed 16% of the world’s corals, primarily in the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean (Wilkinson, 2004). On many reefs, this mortality has led to a loss of structural complexity and shifts in reef fish species composition (Bellwood et al., 2006; Garpe et al., 2006; Graham et al., 2006). Corals that recover from bleaching suffer temporary reductions in growth and reproductive capacity (Mendes and Woodley, 2002), while the recovery of reefs following mortality tends to be dominated by fast-growing and bleaching-resistant coral genera (Arthur et al., 2005).

While there is increasing evidence for climate change impacts on coral reefs, disentangling the impacts of climate-related stresses from other stresses (e.g., over-fishing and pollution; Hughes et al., 2003) is difficult. In addition, inter-decadal variation in pH (Pelejero et al., 2005), storm activity (Goldenberg et al., 2001) and sea surface temperatures (Mestas-Nunez and Miller, 2006) linked, for example, to the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and Pacific Decadal Oscillation, make it more complicated to discern the effect of anthropogenic climate change from natural modes of variability. An analysis of bleaching in the Caribbean indicates that 70% of the variance in geographic extent of bleaching between 1983 and 2000 could be attributed to variation in ENSO and atmospheric dust (Gill et al., 2006).