Air pollution stunts coral growth, research shows

April 7, 2013
A new study has found that pollution from fine particles in the air -- mainly the result of burning coal or volcanic eruptions -- can shade corals from sunlight and cool the surrounding water resulting in reduced growth rates. Credit: Lester Kwiatkowski, University of Exeter

A new study has found that pollution from fine particles in the air – mainly the result of burning coal or volcanic eruptions – can shade corals from sunlight and cool the surrounding water resulting in reduced growth rates.

Although coral reefs grow under the sea it seems that they have been responding to changes in the concentration of in the atmosphere, according to a paper published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience by a team of and coral ecologists from the UK, Australia and Panama. Corals are colonies of simple animal cells but most rely on for their energy and nutrients.

Lead author Lester Kwiatkowski, a PhD student from Mathematics at the University of Exeter, said: "Coral reefs are the most diverse of all with up to 25% of ocean species depending on them for food and shelter. They are believed to be vulnerable to climate change and ocean acidification, but ours is the first study to show a clear link between coral growth and the concentration of particulate pollution in the atmosphere."

Dr Paul Halloran of the Met Office Hadley Centre explained: "Particulate pollution or 'aerosols' reflect and make clouds brighter. This can reduce the light available for coral photosynthesis, as well as the temperature of surrounding waters. Together these factors are shown to slow down coral growth."

The authors used a combination of records retrieved from within the , observations from ships, and statistical modelling. Their analysis shows that coral growth rates in the Caribbean were affected by volcanic aerosol emissions in the early 20th century and by aerosol emissions caused by humans in the later 20th century.

The researchers hope that this work will lead to a better understanding of how coral growth may change in the future, taking into account not just future carbon dioxide levels, but also localised sources of aerosols such as industry or farming.

Professor Peter Mumby of the University of Queensland put the study in the context of global environmental change: "Our study suggests that coral ecosystems are likely to be sensitive to not only the future global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration but also the regional aerosol emissions associated with industrialisation and decarbonisation."

Explore further: CO2 hurts reef growth

More information: Kwiatkowski, L., Cox, P.M., Economou, T., Halloran, P.R., Mumby, P.J., Booth, B.B.B., Carilli, J. and Guzman, H.M. 2013. Caribbean coral growth influenced by anthropogenic aerosol emissions. Nature Geoscience. dx.doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1780

Related Stories

CO2 hurts reef growth

July 11, 2007

Coral reefs are at risk of going soft, quite literally turning to mush as rising carbon dioxide levels prevent coral from forming tough skeletons, according to UQ research.

Coral reefs may start dissolving when atmospheric CO2 doubles

March 9, 2009

Rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the resulting effects on ocean water are making it increasingly difficult for coral reefs to grow, say scientists. A study to be published online March 13, 2009 in Geophysical Research ...

Scientist creates new hypothesis on ocean acidification

August 30, 2011

A Researcher at the Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology, an organized research unit in the University of Hawai'i at Manoa's School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology has come up with a new explanation for the effects ...

Under climate change, winners and losers on the coral reef

April 12, 2012

As ocean temperatures rise, some species of corals are likely to succeed at the expense of others, according to a report published online on April 12 in the Cell Press journal Current Biology that details the first large-scale ...

Viruses linked to algae that control coral health

July 12, 2012

Scientists have discovered two viruses that appear to infect the single-celled microalgae that reside in corals and are important for coral growth and health, and they say the viruses could play a role in the serious decline ...

Recommended for you

A cataclysmic event of a certain age

July 27, 2015

At the end of the Pleistocene period, approximately 12,800 years ago—give or take a few centuries—a cosmic impact triggered an abrupt cooling episode that earth scientists refer to as the Younger Dryas.

'Carbon sink' detected underneath world's deserts

July 28, 2015

The world's deserts may be storing some of the climate-changing carbon dioxide emitted by human activities, a new study suggests. Massive aquifers underneath deserts could hold more carbon than all the plants on land, according ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.