The coming coral catastrophe

ResearchBlogging.orgIf you had to identify the most popularly cited threats posed by a changing climate, rising sea levels would be a strong contender. While no one would argue that the fate of hundreds of millions of humans who live in low-lying coastal regions is not a good enough reason to put the brakes on global warming, I'd like to see more attention paid to what's happening beneath the ocean surface at its current level. I'm talking about the possibility of mass coral extinction. It's the subject of a new analysis in Science by an impressive list of 39 scientists from an even more impressive list of research institutions around the world.

So impressive is that second list, in fact, that I'm going to reproduce it. Right after a couple of excerpts from the paper itself, which carries the straightforward title of "One-Third of Reef-Building Corals Face Elevated Extinction Risk from Climate Change and Local Impacts." (doi: 10.1126/science.1159196).

The authors selected 845 species of reef-building corals, discarded 141 on which the data were insufficient, and took a look at the conservation status of the rest.

Of the remaining 704 species, 231 are listed in the threatened categories, while 407 are in threatened and Near Threatened categories combined .... The only species that do not fall within threatened categories are those that inhabit deeper, lower reef slopes and those not solely dependent on reef habitats.

That is truly frightening. And before someone objects that the threatened and near-threatened labels are less worrisome than "endangered" or "critically endangered," or that the Earth has seen mass coral extinctions before, the really disturbing trend is not the fact that a third of all corals are in trouble, but the speed at which corals are being added to the lists of species at risk.

Our results indicate that the extinction risk of corals has increased dramatically over the past decade. Using the values from previous reports of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, it is possible to determine extinction risk levels prior to the 1998 massive bleaching events. Before 1998, 671 of the 704 data-sufficient species would have been categorized as of Least Concern, 20 as Near Threatened and only 13 included in threatened categories.

All this is important from a human perspective because coral reefs support food webs that supply protein in the form of fish and invertebrates to hundreds of millions of people who don't have the luxury of switching to an alternative. Among the chief causes of the population declines are warming temperatures and ocean acidification. (And if there was ever a good argument against any climate geo-engineering scheme that doesn't somehow deal with acidification, this is it.)

I also find it scary from a personal point of view. One of my favorite experiences in life was SCUBA diving on the Great Barrier Reef, and ever since my son was born 20 months ago, I've kept alive the hope that I could take him on a similar expedition, if not to Australian waters, then to a Caribbean reef. For that I'll have to wait another decade or so. I fear there may nothing much left to see by then.

Now, here's that list, which perhaps better than anything else in the paper demonstrates the strength of ;;;; dare I say it? ;;;; the consensus on the risks we are running by refusing to take the lead on the climate crisis:

IUCN Species Programme/SSC/Conservation International Global Marine Species Assessment, Biological Sciences, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA, USA.
Research Center for Oceanography-Indonesian Institute of Sciences, Jakarta, Indonesia.
Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, Kaneohe, HI, USA.
Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Dauphin Island, AL, USA.
Charles Darwin Research Station, Puerto-Ayora, Santa-Cruz-Galápagos, Ecuador.
NOAA Fisheries/NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program, Silver Spring, MD, USA.
Brown University, Providence, RI, USA.
CIMAR, University of Costa Rica, San José, Costa Rica.
Waikiki Aquarium, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, HI, USA.
Coral Reef Research, Townsville, Queensland, Australia.
Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, Conservation International, Arlington, VA, USA.; Tasmanian Aquaculture and Fisheries Institute, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.
School of Biology, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources, Pago Pago, American Samoa, USA.
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Balboa, Panama.
National Museum of Natural History Naturalis, Leiden, The Netherlands.
Reef Check Foundation, Pacific Palisades, CA, USA.
Research Center for Aquaculture, Minggu, Jakarta Selatan, Indonesia.
Biology Department and Shields Marine Station, De La Salle University, Manila, Philippines.
School of Marine Studies, University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji.
NOAA Fisheries Service, Protected Resources Division, Petersburg, FL, USA.
CORDIO East Africa, Mombasa, Kenya.
Reef Check Philippines, Manila, Philippines.
NOAA, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Damage Assessment and Restoration Program, Key Largo, FL, USA.
Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape Program, Conservation International - Philippines, Quezon City, Philippines.
Silliman University, Institute of Environmental and Marine Sciences, Bantayan, Dumaguete City, Philippines.
Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia.
Zoological Society of London, Institute of Zoology, London, UK.
Department of Biological Science, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK.
Department of Biological Science, University of Warwick, Coventry,UK.
IUCN/SSC - CI/CABS Biodiversity Assessment Unit, Conservation International, Arlington, VA, USA.
Museum of Tropical Queensland, Townsville, Queensland, Australia.
Department of Marine Sciences, University of Puerto Rico, Lajas, PR, USA.
Marine Conservation Society, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, UK.


Carpenter, K.E., Abrar, M., Aeby, G., Aronson, R.B., Banks, S., Bruckner, A., Chiriboga, A., Cortes, J., Delbeek, J.C., DeVantier, L., Edgar, G.J., Edwards, A.J., Fenner, D., Guzman, H.M., Hoeksema, B.W., Hodgson, G., Johan, O., Licuanan, W.Y., Livingstone, S.R., Lovell, E.R., Moore, J.A., Obura, D.O., Ochavillo, D., Polidoro, B.A., Precht, W.F., Quibilan, M.C., Reboton, C., Richards, Z.T., Rogers, A.D., Sanciangco, J., Sheppard, A., Sheppard, C., Smith, J., Stuart, S., Turak, E., Veron, J.E., Wallace, C., Weil, E., Wood, E. (2008). One-Third of Reef-Building Corals Face Elevated Extinction Risk from Climate Change and Local Impacts. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1159196


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I've always thought that images of the bleeched and dying reefs are under utilized ... I find them more disturbing that the melting glaciers. They quite literally show the dying of ocean life.

By Hume's Ghost (not verified) on 11 Jul 2008 #permalink

Can a global economic depression save the world from Climate Change?

This is a debate that we should seriously consider. How bad has Climate Change got�should we voluntarily shutdown our economies to fight Global Warming?

Are we at a point, given the outcome of the G8 meeting, that it would be more beneficial for mankind and nature if our economies where to collapse now, rather than march on causing climatic catastrophe.

I believe that this is a radical alternative measure which should not be ruled out in our efforts to tackle Global Warming. What do you think?

I know it sounds drastic, but there was a depression around the 30s and look were we are at now just 70yrs later. If Climate Change keeps escalating, wont that result in a worse, more permanent outcome? From the now desperate calls of our climate and economic experts it sounds like Hell & High water is just a round the bend.

I am calling for a debate on this to get some input from experts to see if it is a viable solution. Global warming will be catastrophic - a depression shouldn't. We need to look at all the possible paths forward to survival now!

Rouge share traders do a good one person job.... Bush is doing a darn good job so far! Probably not as difficult to archive as you may think!

Part II - How could this be achieved?

The History of Climate Change according to those who don't believe in AGW

1st decade - Its getting warm - great for crops and vacation.
2nd decade - El Nina, its snowing outside - there's no such thing as global warming.
3rd decade - Warmer year than average - maybe global warming?
4th decade - Mt Shasta glacier is expanding, its raining and cold out side - absolutely no global warming.
5th decade - Warmer than usual - maybe global warming, not sure? probably not, because... blah blah blah.

Mean while:
Ice sheets as large as xxx are breaking off Antarctica; The Arctic ice cap is disappearing; California is burning; Coral reefs are dying; Sea level is steadily rising over the last 100yrs; Majority of world glaciers are receding/dissapearing; Perma-Frost is melting in Alaska swallowing houses;

What could be the cause of all this?
Maybe, just maybe, the average global temperature is going up and reeking havoc on our environment?
mmm Not sure...lets wait a few more decades, its been colder than average for the last few years.

20yrs or so later:
Most of the ice is completely gone. We are in dire straits.
Shucks, I guess AGW was occurring - We better find a new planet to live on.
Oh oh, we've run out of Oil!

I attended the Int'l Coral Reef Symposium in Ft Lauderdale a week back, and there was an abundance of images shown of dying reefs. There was also much discussion of resilience being observed with some species in some geographic areas. That was optimistic. From a pure data/scientific perspective, it was interesting to see small studies conducted by different groups converging with respect to what we are learning -- and that should help us, at a minimum, better understand what is going on. There was still the frustrating (but okay, understandable) undercurrent of: so what? so you better understand disease? What can you do about it? One of the most interesting talks was given by a fisheries guy, discussing global fishing concerns - and how going back to the 'small' 'local' fisheries folks will help with some of the external impacts. The guy who gave that talk was Daniel Pauly (Univ. of British Columbia) and he made alot of sense. (

Now, resolving increased pathogenicity of many Vibrios at warmer ocean temperatures? Now that's gonna be a problem.