Sea-level rise (SLR) is predicted to elevate water depths above coral reefs and to increase coastal wave exposure as ecological degradation limits vertical reef growth, but projections lack data on interactions between local rates of reef growth and sea level rise. Here we calculate the vertical growth potential of more than 200 tropical western Atlantic and Indian Ocean reefs, and compare these against recent and projected rates of SLR under different Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) scenarios. Although many reefs retain accretion rates close to recent SLR trends, few will have the capacity to track SLR projections under RCP4.5 scenarios without sustained ecological recovery, and under RCP8.5 scenarios most reefs are predicted to experience mean water depth increases of more than 0.5 m by 2100. Coral cover strongly predicts reef capacity to track SLR, but threshold cover levels that will be necessary to prevent submergence are well above those observed on most reefs. Urgent action is thus needed to mitigate climate, sea-level and future ecological changes in order to limit the magnitude of future reef submergence.
There is a growing recognition for the need to understand how seawater carbonate chemistry over coral reef environments will change in a high-CO2 world to better assess the impacts of ocean acidification on these valuable ecosystems. Coral reefs modify overlying water column chemistry through biogeochemical processes such as net community organic carbon production (NCP) and calcification (NCC). However, the relative importance and influence of these processes on seawater carbonate chemistry vary across multiple functional scales (defined here as space, time, and benthic community composition), and have not been fully constrained. Here, we use Bermuda as a case study to assess (1) spatiotemporal variability in physical and chemical parameters along a depth gradient at a rim reef location, (2) the spatial variability of total alkalinity (TA) and dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) over distinct benthic habitats to infer NCC:NCP ratios [< several km2; rim reef vs. seagrass and calcium carbonate (CaCO3) sediments] on diel timescales, and (3) compare how TA-DIC relationships and NCC:NCP vary as we expand functional scales from local habitats to the entire reef platform (10's of km2) on seasonal to interannual timescales. Our results demonstrate that TA-DIC relationships were strongly driven by local benthic metabolism and community composition over diel cycles. However, as the spatial scale expanded to the reef platform, the TA-DIC relationship reflected processes that were integrated over larger spatiotemporal scales, with effects of NCC becoming increasingly more important over NCP. This study demonstrates the importance of considering drivers across multiple functional scales to constrain carbonate chemistry variability over coral reefs.
Globally, tropical coral reefs are being degraded by human activities, and as a result, reef-building corals have declined while macroalgae have increased. Recent work has focused on measuring macroalgal abundance in response to anthropogenic stressors. To accurately evaluate the effects of human impacts, however, it is necessary to understand the effects of natural processes on reef condition. To better understand how coral reef communities are influenced by natural processes, we investigated how spatial and seasonal changes in environmental conditions (temperature and PAR) influence benthic community structure, and the composition and frequency of coral-algal interactions across eight distinct zones and over a 23-month period at Heron reef on the southern Great Barrier Reef. Hard coral cover and macroalgal density showed distinct spatio-temporal variations, both within and between zones. Broad hard coral cover was significantly higher at the reef slope sites compared to the lagoon and was not significantly influenced by season. The composition and biomass of macroalgae increased in spring and declined in summer, with maximum macroalgal abundance corresponding with average temperatures of between 22 and 24°C and average 24 h PAR of 300–500 μmol qanta m−2 s−1. Changes in macroalgal biomass further influenced the composition and frequency of coral-algal interactions, however the incidence of coral-algal contact was best explained by coral cover. The results presented here emphasize that natural levels of macroalgae and coral-algal interactions are context-specific, and vary not only with-in zones, but in somewhat predictable seasonal cycles. Further, these results emphasize that the frequency of coral-algal interactions is dependent on hard coral, not just macroalgal cover, and an increase in coral-algal interactions does not necessarily translate to degradation of coral reefs.
Increasing interest for recreational SCUBA diving worldwide is raising the concern about its potential effects on marine ecosystems. Available literature is still much focused either on impacts on coral reefs of tropical regions or on diver’s behaviour underwater. In this study we analysed, through photo-quadrats, the benthic community composition in a section of a decommissioned Portuguese navy ship that was sunk for touristic purposes. The ship broke down and became separated in two sections enabling a Control versus Impact sampling design, as one section is less attractive for diving. Gorgonians (mainly belonging to the species Leptogorgia sarmentosa and Eunicella verrucosa) were the taxa more negatively affected in the dived ship section, with smaller coverage and size. More resilient species such as the acorn barnacle Amphibalanus amphitrite were positively correlated with the Impact samples. In the case of the study area, according to the available data, 70% or more of the total amount of dives are now on the sunken ships. From these results, lessons can be taken to apply on natural reefs and related management plans.
Ocean acidification is expected to alter community composition on coral reefs, but its effects on reef community metabolism are poorly understood. Here we document how early successional benthic coral reef communities change in situ along gradients of carbon dioxide (CO2), and the consequences of these changes on rates of community photosynthesis, respiration, and light and dark calcification. Ninety standardised benthic communities were grown on PVC tiles deployed at two shallow-water volcanic CO2 seeps and two adjacent control sites in Papua New Guinea. Along the CO2 gradient, both the upward facing phototrophic and the downward facing cryptic communities changed in their composition. Under ambient CO2, both communities were dominated by calcifying algae, but with increasing CO2 they were gradually replaced by non-calcifying algae (predominantly green filamentous algae, cyanobacteria and macroalgae, which increased from ~30% to ~80% cover). Responses were weaker in the invertebrate communities, however ascidians and tube-forming polychaetes declined with increasing CO2. Differences in the carbonate chemistry explained a far greater amount of change in communities than differences between the two reefs and successional changes from five to 13 months, suggesting community successions are established early and are under strong chemical control. As pH declined from 8.0 to 7.8, rates of gross photosynthesis and dark respiration of the 13-month old reef communities (upper and cryptic surfaces combined) significantly increased by 10% and 20%, respectively, in response to altered community composition. As a consequence, net production remained constant. Light and dark calcification rates both gradually declined by 20%, and low or negative daily net calcification rates were observed at an aragonite saturation state of <2.3. The study demonstrates that ocean acidification as predicted for the end of this century will strongly alter reef communities, and will significantly change rates of community metabolism.
Effective management of coral reefs requires strategies tailored to cope with cumulative disturbances from human activities. In Brazil, where coral reefs are a priority for conservation, intensifying threats from local and global stressors are of paramount concern to management agencies. Using a cumulative impact assessment approach, our goal was to inform management actions for coral reefs in Brazil by assessing their exposure to multiple stressors (fishing, land-based activities, coastal development, mining, aquaculture, shipping, and global warming). We calculated an index of the risk to cumulative impacts: (i) assuming uniform sensitivity of coral reefs to stressors; and (ii) using impact weights to reflect varying tolerance levels of coral reefs to each stressor. We also predicted the index in both the presence and absence of global warming. We found that 16% and 37% of coral reefs had high to very high risk of cumulative impacts, without and with information on sensitivity respectively, and 42% of reefs had low risk to cumulative impacts from both local and global stressors. Our outputs are the first comprehensive spatial dataset of cumulative impact on coral reefs in Brazil, and show that areas requiring attention mostly corresponded to those closer to population centres. We demonstrate how the relationships between risks from local and global stressors can be used to derive strategic management actions.
Coral bleaching is the detrimental expulsion of algal symbionts from their cnidarian hosts, and predominantly occurs when corals are exposed to thermal stress. The incidence and severity of bleaching is often spatially heterogeneous within reef-scales (<1 km), and is therefore not predictable using conventional remote sensing products. Here, we systematically assess the relationship between in situ measurements of 20 environmental variables, along with seven remotely sensed SST thermal stress metrics, and 81 observed bleaching events at coral reef locations spanning five major reef regions globally. We find that high-frequency temperature variability (i.e., daily temperature range) was the most influential factor in predicting bleaching prevalence and had a mitigating effect, such that a 1 °C increase in daily temperature range would reduce the odds of more severe bleaching by a factor of 33. Our findings suggest that reefs with greater high-frequency temperature variability may represent particularly important opportunities to conserve coral ecosystems against the major threat posed by warming ocean temperatures.
Pollution of marine environments with microplastic particles (i.e. plastic fragments <5 mm) has increased rapidly during the last decades. As these particles are mainly of terrestrial origin, coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs are particularly threatened. Recent studies revealed that microplastic ingestion can have adverse effects on marine invertebrates. However, little is known about its effects on small-polyp stony corals that are the main framework builders in coral reefs. The goal of this study is to characterise how different coral species I) respond to microplastic particles and whether the exposure might II) lead to health effects. Therefore, six small-polyp stony coral species belonging to the genera Acropora, Pocillopora, and Porites were exposed to microplastics (polyethylene, size 37–163 μm, concentration ca. 4000 particles L−1) over four weeks, and responses and effects on health were documented.
The study showed that the corals responded differentially to microplastics. Cleaning mechanisms (direct interaction, mucus production) but also feeding interactions (i.e. interaction with mesenterial filaments, ingestion, and egestion) were observed. Additionally, passive contact through overgrowth was documented. In five of the six studied species, negative effects on health (i.e. bleaching and tissue necrosis) were reported.
We here provide preliminary knowledge about coral-microplastic-interactions. The results call for further investigations of the effects of realistic microplastic concentrations on growth, reproduction, and survival of stony corals. This might lead to a better understanding of resilience capacities in coral reef ecosystems.
Coral bleaching continues to be one of the most devastating and immediate impacts of climate change on coral reef ecosystems worldwide. In 2015, a major bleaching event was declared as the “3rd global coral bleaching event” by the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, impacting a large number of reefs in every major ocean. The Red Sea was no exception, and we present herein in situ observations of the status of coral reefs in the central Saudi Arabian Red Sea from September 2015, following extended periods of high temperatures reaching upwards of 32.5°C in our study area. We examined eleven reefs using line-intercept transects at three different depths, including all reefs that were surveyed during a previous bleaching event in 2010. Bleaching was most prevalent on inshore reefs (55.6% ± 14.6% of live coral cover exhibited bleaching) and on shallower transects (41% ± 10.2% of live corals surveyed at 5m depth) within reefs. Similar taxonomic groups (e.g., Agariciidae) were affected in 2015 and in 2010. Most interestingly, Acropora and Porites had similar bleaching rates (~30% each) and similar relative coral cover (~7% each) across all reefs in 2015. Coral genera with the highest levels of bleaching (>60%) were also among the rarest (<1% of coral cover) in 2015. While this bodes well for the relative retention of coral cover, it may ultimately lead to decreased species richness, often considered an important component of a healthy coral reef. The resultant long-term changes in these coral reef communities remain to be seen.
Coral reefs feed millions of people worldwide, provide coastal protection and generate billions of dollars annually in tourism revenue1. The underlying architecture of a reef is a biogenic carbonate structure that accretes over many years of active biomineralization by calcifying organisms, including corals and algae2. Ocean acidification poses a chronic threat to coral reefs by reducing the saturation state of the aragonite mineral of which coral skeletons are primarily composed, and lowering the concentration of carbonate ions required to maintain the carbonate reef. Reduced calcification, coupled with increased bioerosion and dissolution3, may drive reefs into a state of net loss this century4. Our ability to predict changes in ecosystem function and associated services ultimately hinges on our understanding of community- and ecosystem-scale responses. Past research has primarily focused on the responses of individual species rather than evaluating more complex, community-level responses. Here we use an in situ carbon dioxide enrichment experiment to quantify the net calcification response of a coral reef flat to acidification. We present an estimate of community-scale calcification sensitivity to ocean acidification that is, to our knowledge, the first to be based on a controlled experiment in the natural environment. This estimate provides evidence that near-future reductions in the aragonite saturation state will compromise the ecosystem function of coral reefs.