Reefscape

Coral reefs losing ability to keep pace with sea-level rise

Embargoed until: Publicly released:

Many coral reefs will be unable to keep growing fast enough to keep up with rising sea levels, leaving tropical coastlines and low-lying islands exposed to increased erosion and flooding risk, new research suggests. An international team, led by scientists from University of Exeter, Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, Lancaster University and the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE), compared the maximum upward growth rates of coral reefs with predicted rates of sea-level rise, and found many reefs will be unable to keep pace.

Journal/conference: Nature

DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0194-z

Organisation/s: The University of Queensland, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, The University of Western Australia, CSIRO, University of Auckland, University of Exeter

Media Release

From: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

Many coral reefs will be unable to keep growing fast enough to keep up with rising sea levels, leaving tropical coastlines and low-lying islands exposed to increased erosion and flooding risk, new research suggests.

An international team, led by scientists from University of Exeter, Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, Lancaster University and the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE), compared the maximum upward growth rates of coral reefs with predicted rates of sea-level rise, and found many reefs will be unable to keep pace.

The growth of coral reefs is strongly influenced by the amount and types of coral living on the reef surface. This growth is now being hampered by combinations of coral disease, deteriorating water quality and fishing pressure, along with severe impacts from “coral bleaching” caused by climate change.

“For many reefs across the Caribbean and Indian Ocean regions, where the study focused, rates of growth are slowing due to coral reef degradation,” said lead author Professor Chris Perry, of the University of Exeter.

“Meanwhile, rates of sea-level rise are increasing – and our results suggest reefs will be unable to keep up. As a result, water depths above most reefs will increase rapidly through this century.”

“Even under modest climate change prediction scenarios (RCP4.5) only about 3% of Indian Ocean reefs will be able to track local sea-level rise projections without sustained ecological recovery, whilst under continued high emission scenarios (RCP8.5) most reefs will experience water depth increases in excess of half a metre,” added co-author Dr Aimée Slangen of NIOZ, Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research.

“This is now of critical concern because reefs play a key role as natural sea defences by limiting coastal wave energy exposure,” commented Professor Nick Graham, of Lancaster University, another co-author of the study.

“Efforts to tackle climate change must therefore be coupled with careful management of fishing and water quality protection to prevent widespread submergence through this century.”

The researchers calculated growth rates for more than 200 tropical western Atlantic and Indian Ocean reefs.

“Now more than ever, we must limit global greenhouse gas emissions. Our predictions, even under the best case scenarios, suggest that by 2100 the inundation of reefs will expose coastal communities to significant threats of shoreline change,” said co-author Professor Peter Mumby of Coral CoE at The University of Queensland. “Healthier coral reefs will reduce the rate of seawater inundation.”

Professor Perry concluded: “The most worrying end-point scenario in this respect is that if predictions of increasing bleaching frequency are realised, many reefs may become locked into permanent low growth rate states, leading to more submergence under all future sea-level rise scenarios.”

The paper, published in the journal Nature, is entitled: “Loss of coral reef growth capacity to track sea-level rise under climate change.”

DOI 10.1038/s41586-018-0194-z

Link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0194-z (this will go live once the paper is published)

Ends

To download images and videos, click here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/pdghnuu747lnom9/AAA6NoOOjKWkt5SsnlEgL22_a?dl=0 Credit for all files: Prof Chris Perry, University of Exeter. Please see the Word document called “Captions and permissions.docx” for more details.

Notes to editors:

Coral bleaching: Warmer water temperatures can result in coral bleaching. When water is too warm, corals will expel the algae living in their tissues, causing the coral to turn white. After bleaching, some corals survive and some die.

Attachments:

  • Springer Nature
    Web page
    Please link to the article in online versions of your report (the URL will go live when the embargo lifts).

News for:

Australia
New Zealand
QLD
WA

Multimedia:

  • View across a shallow water coral reef around Theluveligaa Island
    View across a shallow water coral reef around Theluveligaa Island

    View across a shallow water coral reef around Theluveligaa Island, Ari Atoll, Maldives. The ability of these reefs to maintain high growth rates will be critical to their ability to track sea-level rise.

    File size: 6.9 MB

    Attribution: Guy Stevens | MANTA TRUST: guy@mantatrust.org

    Permission category: © - Only use with this story

    Last modified: 14 Jun 2018 3:17am

    NOTE: High resolution files can only be downloaded here by registered journalists who are logged in.

  • Nearshore corals forming the inner part of the coral reef around a reef island
    Nearshore corals forming the inner part of the coral reef around a reef island

    Nearshore corals forming the inner part of the coral reef around a reef island in the Tuamotus Archipelago, French Polynesia.

    File size: 19.2 MB

    Attribution: Tane Sinclair-Taylor: t.sinclairtaylor@gmail.com

    Permission category: © - Only use with this story

    Last modified: 14 Jun 2018 3:17am

    NOTE: High resolution files can only be downloaded here by registered journalists who are logged in.

  • A vibrant and healthy shallow water coral assemblage growing close to sea level
    A vibrant and healthy shallow water coral assemblage growing close to sea level

    A vibrant and healthy shallow water coral assemblage growing close to sea level in the Coral Triangle, Pacific Ocean. Maintaining high reef growth rates will be critical to the ability of reefs to track sea-level rise.

    File size: 12.3 MB

    Attribution: Tane Sinclair-Taylor: t.sinclairtaylor@gmail.com

    Permission category: © - Only use with this story

    Last modified: 14 Jun 2018 3:17am

    NOTE: High resolution files can only be downloaded here by registered journalists who are logged in.

  • Shallow coral reef crest, New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea
    Shallow coral reef crest, New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea

    Shallow coral reef crest, New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea. These shallow water reefs play a key role in limiting wave exposure along many tropical coastlines and around low-lying reef islands.

    File size: 8.7 MB

    Attribution: Tane Sinclair-Taylor: t.sinclairtaylor@gmail.com

    Permission category: © - Only use with this story

    Last modified: 14 Jun 2018 3:17am

    NOTE: High resolution files can only be downloaded here by registered journalists who are logged in.

  • Table Acropora corals growing in the shallow waters of Coral Bay, WA
    Table Acropora corals growing in the shallow waters of Coral Bay, WA

    Table Acropora corals growing in the shallow waters of Coral Bay, Western Australia. Coral Bay forms part of Ningaloo Reef, Australia’s largest fringing reef and part of the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Site.

    File size: 10.0 MB

    Attribution: Tom Bridge: Thomas.bridge@jcu.edu.au

    Permission category: © - Only use with this story

    Last modified: 14 Jun 2018 3:17am

    NOTE: High resolution files can only be downloaded here by registered journalists who are logged in.

Show less
Show more

Media contact details for this story are only visible to registered journalists.