Coral reefs may start dissolving when atmospheric CO2 doubles

Mar 09, 2009
Coral Reefs

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 Letters by researchers at the Carnegie Institution and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem warns that if carbon dioxide reaches double pre-industrial levels, coral reefs can be expected to not just stop growing, but also to begin dissolving all over the world.

The impact on reefs is a consequence of both ocean acidification caused by the absorption of into seawater and rising water temperatures. Previous studies have shown that rising carbon dioxide will slow coral growth, but this is the first study to show that can be expected to start dissolving just about everywhere in just a few decades, unless are cut deeply and soon.

"Globally, each second, we dump over 1000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and, each second, about 300 tons of that carbon dioxide is going into the oceans," said co-author Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution's Department of , testifying to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife of the Committee on Natural Resources on February 25, 2009. "We can say with a high degree of certainty that all of this CO2 will make the oceans more acidic - that is simple chemistry taught to freshman college students."

The study was designed determine the impact of this acidification on coral reefs. The research team, consisting of Jacob Silverman, Caldeira, and Long Cao of the as well as Boaz Lazar and Jonathan Erez from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, used field data from coral reefs to determine the effects of temperature and on coral calcification rates. Armed with this information, they plugged the data into a computer model that calculated global and chemistry at different atmospheric levels of CO2 ranging from the pre-industrial value of 280 ppm (parts per million) to 750 ppm. The current atmospheric concentration is over 380 ppm, and is rapidly rising due to human-caused emissions, primarily through the burning of fossil fuels.

Based on the model results for more than 9,000 reef locations, the researchers determined that at the highest concentration studied, 750 ppm, acidification of seawater would reduce calcification rates of three quarters of the world's reefs to less than 20% of pre-industrial rates. Field studies suggest that at such low rates, coral growth would not be able to keep up with dissolution and other natural as well as manmade destructive processes attacking reefs.

Prospects for reefs are even gloomier when the effects of coral bleaching are included in the model. Coral bleaching refers to the loss of symbiotic algae that are essential for healthy growth of coral colonies. Bleaching is already a widespread problem, and high temperatures are among the factors known to promote bleaching. According to their model the researchers calculated that under present conditions 30% of reefs have already undergone bleaching and that at CO2 levels of 560 ppm (twice pre-industrial levels) the combined effects of acidification and bleaching will reduce the calcification rates of all the world's reefs by 80% or more. This lowered calcification rate will render all reefs vulnerable to dissolution, without even considering other threats to reefs, such as pollution.

"Our fossil-fueled lifestyle is killing off coral reefs," says Caldeira. "If we don't change our ways soon, in the next few decades we will destroy what took millions of years to create."

"Coral reefs may be the canary in the coal mine," he adds. "Other major pieces of our planet may be similarly threatened because we are using the atmosphere and oceans as dumps for our CO2 pollution. We can save the reefs if we decide to treat our planet with the care it deserves. We need to power our economy with technologies that do not dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere or oceans."

Source: Carnegie Institution

Explore further: Lava creeps toward road on Hawaii's Big Island

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Coral Reefs Unlikely to Survive in Acid Oceans

Dec 13, 2007

Carbon emissions from human activities are not just heating up the globe, they are changing the ocean’s chemistry. This could soon be fatal to coral reefs, which are havens for marine biodiversity and underpin ...

CO2 hurts reef growth

Jul 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.

Global Warming May Leed to Coral Reefs Grow

Dec 14, 2004

Coral reefs around the world could expand in size by up to a third in response to increased ocean warming and the greenhouse effect, according to Australian scientists. About 100,000 species living in and around ...

Recommended for you

Icelandic volcano sits on massive magma hot spot

Oct 24, 2014

Spectacular eruptions at Bárðarbunga volcano in central Iceland have been spewing lava continuously since Aug. 31. Massive amounts of erupting lava are connected to the destruction of supercontinents and ...

NASA sees Tropical Storm Ana still vigorous

Oct 24, 2014

NASA's TRMM satellite saw that Tropical Storm Ana was still generating moderate rainfall is it pulled away from Hawaii. The next day, NASA's Aqua satellite saw that wind shear was having an effect on the ...

User comments : 8

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

jonnyboy
1.5 / 5 (2) Mar 09, 2009
It really is too bad that articles, like this one, that actually appear to have significance get overwhelmed by all the BS GCW articles put out by less honorable institutions.
tpb
3 / 5 (2) Mar 10, 2009
It's also too bad that common sense doesn't get injected into these articles.
Coral evolved and flourished when atmospheric CO2 levels were 10 to 15 time higher than now, as well as global temperatures as high as 10 degrees higher than now.
Corals are doing well, except where manmade pollution runoff from land is a problem.
barkster
3 / 5 (2) Mar 10, 2009
Coral evolved and flourished when atmospheric CO2 levels were 10 to 15 time higher than now, as well as global temperatures as high as 10 degrees higher than now.
Sadly, tpb, this is an inconvenient truth.
It really is too bad that articles, like this one, that actually appear to have significance get overwhelmed by all the BS GCW articles put out by less honorable institutions.
jonnyboy... I concur in principle, although this article does has it's share of AGW hype.
The impact on reefs is a consequence of both ocean acidification caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide into seawater and rising water temperatures. Previous studies have shown that rising carbon dioxide will slow coral growth, but this is the first study to show that coral reefs can be expected to start dissolving just about everywhere in just a few decades, unless carbon dioxide emissions are cut deeply and soon.
Perhaps higher temp, acidity, and CO2 will just cause coral and animals that live near deep ocean thermal vents to spread out and move upwards... and some shallow water coral to recede, only to come back or have evolved when the cycle reverses (much like the tree line in the Alps moving higher or lower). But that's not a sign of certain doom, and it sure ain't man-made. I believe it's called adaptation and/or evolution. Would we blame the current state of the Petrified Forrest in Arizona on some human induced climate shift?

I can imagine that these AGW fearmongers must live in some place where it's 85 degrees and sunny all year long, because it seems that deep down inside they mistakenly believe in some kind of static-state existence of nature, where any deviation is extreme. I could handle that, except that these same people control the home owners association and want to create rules that tax me for farting.
theoldhogger
3 / 5 (2) Mar 12, 2009
As I walk in my garden here in South Central Cariboo, British Columbia, Canada, I note that the prolonged winter has caused two feet of snow to be sitting atop my snowdrops, crocuses, and dafodills. They usually start in February, Tulips should be starting now, mid-March. And I think of the vague possibility that somewhere in the world it is warm, and sunny and green and that perhaps corals, under the warm water aren't growing so well, and my immediate reaction is, "So what?! Who cares?! Get a life!!!"
Cheers.....theoldhogger
Velanarris
not rated yet Mar 16, 2009
Here's the best part:
The impact on reefs is a consequence of both ocean acidification caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide into seawater and rising water temperatures.


Rising seawater temperature causes outgassing of CO2. So it's either 1 or the other. Is the sea water of tropical reef systems becomming more acidic due to CO2 or is the water warmer than usual leading to less CO2 in solution?

Perhaps it's the warm water taking the CO2 out of solution robbing the corals of the Calcium Carbonate they depend upon to grow.
barakn
1 / 5 (1) Apr 21, 2009
Velanarris,
I believe you are referring to the fact that a gas's solubility in a liquid decreases with temperature. This certainly will be important for oxygen because it has a high atmospheric concentration and therefore it's concentration in water is often close to saturation, and because oxygen does not significantly react with water. The same can not be said for carbon dioxide. Its atmospheric concentration is much lower than oxygen's and generally is much lower in water as well, and it also has the odd habit of reacting with water to form non-gaseous, ionic compounds which are not subject to the afore-mentioned relationship between gas solubility and temperature. To state that rising seawater temperatures causes outgassing of CO2 is to state your ignorance on the matter.
Velanarris
not rated yet Apr 22, 2009
Barakn, I'm afraid you're incorrect. Rising temperatures directly reduce seawater's ability to retain CO2. This is a matter of hardness and precipitation in solution. As the temperature of the water rises, simple bicarbonate reactions increase in frequency resulting in more CO2 precipitating out of solution thus raising the pH of the water to alkaline levels, secondly, CO2 as a gas does not stay in solution in seawater very well, especially under strong aeration or rising temperature. This leads to outgasing or precipitation from solution. Resulting bicarbonate and reduction in the kH of the seawater would leave less available CO2 and a reduced solubility potential of CO2. These are well understood chemical reactions.
dachpyarvile
not rated yet Jun 13, 2009
In addition, what do we do with the inconvenient truth that corals and coral reefs abounded at times in earth's prehistory when atmospheric CO2 levels were in the 1000s ppm??? If they did not dissolve then why would they dissolve now, particularly with the waters allegedly warming as the AGW crowd claim? Could it be possible that the waters are really growing colder and thus dissolving more CO2?