Rising sea temperatures could eliminate coral reefs by 2100

Rising sea surface temperatures and acidic waters could eliminate nearly all existing coral reef habitats by 2100, according to new research. It suggests that corals are most at risk from emission-driven changes in their environment.

Scientists project 70 to 90 per cent of coral reefs will disappear over the next 20 years as a result of climate change and pollution. Some groups are attempting to curb this decline by transplanting live corals grown in a lab to dying reefs. They propose new, young corals will boost the reef’s recovery and bring it back to a healthy state.

But new research mapping where such restoration efforts would be most successful over the coming decades finds that by 2100, few to zero suitable coral habitats will remain. The preliminary findings suggest sea surface temperature and acidity are the most important factors in determining if a site is suitable for restoration, announced a statement.

Although pollution poses numerous threats to ocean creatures, the new research suggests corals are most at risk from emission-driven changes in their environment.

“Trying to clean up the beaches is great and trying to combat pollution is fantastic. We need to continue those efforts,” commented Renee Setter from the University of Hawaii Manoa. “But at the end of the day, fighting climate change is really what we need to be advocating for in order to protect corals and avoid compounded stressors.”

Coral reefs around the globe face uncertain futures as ocean temperatures continue to climb. Warmer waters stress corals, causing them to release symbiotic algae living inside them. This turns typically vibrant-colored communities of corals white, a process called bleaching. Bleached corals are not dead, but they are at higher risk of dying, and these bleaching events are becoming more common under climate change.

In the new study, Setter and her colleagues mapped what areas of the ocean would be suitable for coral restoration efforts over the coming decades. The researchers simulated ocean environment conditions like sea surface temperature, wave energy, acidity of the water, pollution, and overfishing in areas where corals now exist. They found most parts of the ocean where coral reefs exist today won’t be suitable habitats for corals by 2045, and the situation worsened as the simulation extended to 2100.

Photo credit: WorldFish, flickr/Creative Commons

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