Australia's Barrier Reef at greater risk than thought, study says

February 23, 2016
Fish swim through the coral on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral bank
Fish swim through the coral on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral bank

Australia's Great Barrier Reef (GBR), the world's largest coral bank, is at greater risk than previously thought of dissolving as climate change renders the oceans more acidic, researchers said Tuesday.

A decline in aragonite—the mineral that corals use to build their skeletons—is likely to accelerate, they found, as oceans absorb spewed by mankind's burning of fossil fuels.

This disturbs ocean chemistry, leading to a drop in the pH level and less aragonite, a crystal form of calcium carbonate.

Without this life-sustaining mineral, corals cannot rebuild their skeletons and will disintegrate over time.

For the study published in Nature Communications, scientists from Australia and Saudi Arabia created a new model for estimating the level of aragonite saturation—an indicator of future deposits—at more than 3,000 separate reefs within the larger GBR.

Physical measurement of aragonite at each individual reef on the 2,300-kilometre (1,400-mile) structure is an impossible feat.

The team used a model of ocean circulation and water chemistry, as well as data from direct observations.

They were able to pick up regional differences not observed in previous assessments.

Putting it all together, the team estimated that future decline in aragonite saturation "is likely to be steeper on the GBR than currently projected" by the UN's top climate science body, the IPCC.

Australia's Great Barrier Reef is at greater risk than previously thought of dissolving as climate change renders the oceans mor
Australia's Great Barrier Reef is at greater risk than previously thought of dissolving as climate change renders the oceans more acidic, researchers say

Too late?

This suggested that even if CO2 emissions are significantly reduced, as countries have pledged to do, it may be too late to prevent "potential losses in coral cover, ecosystem biodiversity and resilience."

The team found large variability between regions, and said the inner and southern reefs are at higher risk of damage.

"The model indicates that central reef waters may already be showing signs of dissolution," they wrote, adding "this region is likely to expand north and south with time."

The team said the data could be used to inform local coral management.

According to the IPCC, higher CO2 levels have caused the world's oceans to become about 26 percent more acidic since the onset of the Industrial Age, and may have already doomed to extinction.

Green group WWF says nearly a third of the world's reefs have already been lost, and the rest could disappear by mid-century.

These unique ecosystems cover less than 0.1 percent of the ocean -– half the area of France –- but are home to about a quarter of marine species, including fish critical for human diets and livelihoods.

Explore further: New research maps areas most vulnerable to ocean acidification

More information: Nature Communications, nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/ncomms10732

Related Stories

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 ...

Major changes needed for coral reef survival

June 28, 2013

To prevent coral reefs around the world from dying off, deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions are required, says a new study from Carnegie's Katharine Ricke and Ken Caldeira. They find that all existing coral reefs will be ...

Coral growth rate plummets in 30-year comparison

September 17, 2014

A team of researchers working on a Carnegie expedition in Australia's Great Barrier Reef has documented that coral growth rates have plummeted 40% since the mid-1970s. The scientists suggest that ocean acidification may be ...

Study identifies most vulnerable tropical reef fish

February 5, 2016

Scientists have identified the key drivers of why some species are absent from reefs in the Indian and Pacific oceans, and which species are most vulnerable. Incorporating this knowledge in to conservation strategies will ...

Recommended for you

Caves in central China show history of natural flood patterns

January 19, 2017

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have found that major flooding and large amounts of precipitation occur on 500-year cycles in central China. These findings shed light on the forecasting of future floods and improve ...

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.