Rising CO2 'will hit reefs harder'

Oct 27, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- Rising CO2 levels in the world's oceans could deliver a disastrous blow to the ability of coral reefs to withstand climate change.

A major new investigation by Australian scientists has revealed that acidification of the oceans from human CO2 emissions has the potential to worsen the impact of the bleaching and death of reef-building organisms expected to occur under global warming.

The study by a team led by Dr Ken Anthony of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and The University of Queensland, published in this week's Proceedings of the (US) National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) concludes that earlier research may have significantly understated the likely damage to the world's reefs caused by human-made change to the Earth's atmosphere.

In a large experiment on Heron Island, the team simulated CO2 and temperature conditions predicted for the middle and end of this century, based on current forecasts of the world's likely emission levels and warming by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The results of their analyses of the bleaching, growth and survival of a number of organisms including corals indicates that a number of very important reef builders may be completely lost in near future.

“We found that coralline algae, which glue the reef together and help coral larvae settle successfully, were highly sensitive to increased CO2. These may die on reefs such as those in the southern Great Barrier Reef before year 2050,” says Dr Anthony.

“Every time you start your car or turn on the lights, half the CO2 you emit ends up in the oceans, turning them just a tiny bit more acidic, as well as causing the climate to warm. What is new is an understanding of how these two effects interact to affect the corals and reef building algae.”

The CoECRS team erected 30 large aquaria in the waters of Heron Island in the southern GBR and studied the combined effects of warming, high CO2 and sunlight on a large range of reef organisms for eight weeks.

“The results, frankly, are alarming,” says researcher and 2008 Smart State Premier's Fellow Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg. “They clearly suggest that previous predictions of coral bleaching have been far too conservative, because they didn't factor in the effect of acidification on the bleaching process and how the two interact.”

The results of the team's analyses of the bleaching, growth and survival of key coral reef species indicate that a number of very important reef builders may be completely lost in the near future – in particular the coralline algae that glue the reef together and help coral larvae settle successfully, says Dr Guillermo Diaz-Pulido.

On the positive side, some coral species seem able to cope with the levels of ocean acidification expected by the mid-century by enhancing their rates of photosynthesis, says team member Dr David Kline. “This is an important discovery that can buy the reef time while the nations of the world work together to stabilise CO2 emissions,” he says.

“Although high CO2 causes corals to bleach and lose their symbiotic organisms, the surviving symbionts seem able to work harder. However, when CO2 levels in the water become too high, the symbiotic coral-algal system crashes and the corals die,” adds Dr Sophie Dove.

“The implications of this finding are massive as it means that our current bleaching models, which are based on temperature only, severely underestimate the amount of coral bleaching we will see in the future,” Dr Anthony says.

“These results highlight the urgency of reducing CO2 emissions globally. Without political will and commitment to abatement, entire reef systems such as the Great Barrier Reef will be severely threatened in coming decades,” the team warns.

The results of the research are being offered to reef managers to help them develop strategies to protect the reefs which are most at risk.

Provided by UQ

Explore further: US delays decision on Keystone pipeline project

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Climate change plays 'Russian roulette' with the world's oceans

Oct 16, 2013

The world's oceans will see dramatic changes thanks to climate change, affecting hundreds of millions of people who depend on the sea according to research published today in the online journal PLOS Biology. It's the first global forecast for the oceans under clim ...

Stop marine pollution to protect kelp forests

Jul 17, 2013

(Phys.org) —University of Adelaide marine biologists have found that reducing nutrient pollution in coastal marine environments should help protect kelp forests from the damaging effects of rising CO2.

Recommended for you

US delays decision on Keystone pipeline project

Apr 18, 2014

The United States announced Friday a fresh delay on a final decision regarding a controversial Canada to US oil pipeline, saying more time was needed to carry out a review.

New research on Earth's carbon budget

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —Results from a research project involving scientists from the Desert Research Institute have generated new findings surrounding some of the unknowns of changes in climate and the degree to which ...

User comments : 6

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

MikeB
2.9 / 5 (10) Oct 27, 2008
"The results, frankly, are alarming," says researcher and 2008 Smart State Premier's Fellow Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg.

How did I know this would be alarming?
Velanarris
3 / 5 (10) Oct 27, 2008
"The results, frankly, are alarming," says researcher and 2008 Smart State Premier's Fellow Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg.

How did I know this would be alarming?


The oceans, by virtue of the increased CO2 levels of the past, must have been more acidic in the past. Meaning the corraline symbiotic organisms are filling a niche that they have filled for a long time, or, they took hold in after a similar organism died out.
M_N
3.2 / 5 (11) Oct 27, 2008
People seem to underestimate nature's ability to adapt to changing conditions. At least these scientists were prepared to admit "some coral species seem able to cope with the levels of ocean acidification expected".

Anyone else notice that the focus seems to be moving away from "global warming" (it hasn't been warming for 10 years), and shifting towards other supposedly disastrous consequences of CO2? How long can they keep up this scam?
CWFlink
3.7 / 5 (11) Oct 28, 2008
How do you simulate 100 years of adaptation by the reef organisms? ...oh... YOU CAN'T!

So you pretend by pouring carbonic acid on the reef you can simulate what it will be like in 100 years and.... shush! ....don't point out the obvious flaw in the simulation (or researcher bias.)

Rather than an 8-week "shock treatment", the organisms should have been gown through a number of generations in an environment of gradually increasing CO2 content. At least that would have suggested an honest attempt to determine how well the organisms would adapt.
GrayMouser
5 / 5 (3) Oct 31, 2008
Given:
1) More CO2 means more carbonate in the sea water.
2) Reefs need calcium carbonate to build with.

What's the problem?
Velanarris
1 / 5 (1) Nov 02, 2008
Given:
1) More CO2 means more carbonate in the sea water.
2) Reefs need calcium carbonate to build with.

What's the problem?
There really isn't one. Coral bleaching is an immuno response to change in environment temperature, not acidity or toxicity. The link between CO2 absorption in the ocean and coral bleaching is not well explored so until there's information on that tie I'm going to refrain from comment.

The aspect everyone should be angered about it the continual complacence in regard to blast fishing.

Blast fishing is the old "redneck fishin' rod" by which fishermen, discouraged by smaller than usual results, use dynamite to fish the reef. This causes massive amounts of damage to the natural structures and is responsible for the majority of our reef damage. This is an especially potent problem in areas like Indonesia where the local government doesn't care to punish the parties responsible for the action.

More news stories

China says massive area of its soil polluted

A huge area of China's soil covering more than twice the size of Spain is estimated to be polluted, the government said Thursday, announcing findings of a survey previously kept secret.

UN weather agency warns of 'El Nino' this year

The UN weather agency Tuesday warned there was a good chance of an "El Nino" climate phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean this year, bringing droughts and heavy rainfall to the rest of the world.

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...