Climate Deal May Be Too Late To Save Coral Reefs, Scientists Warn

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Climate Deal May Be Too Late To Save Coral Reefs, Scientists Warn

by
David Adam

reefs including the Great Barrier Reef off Australia could begin to break up within a few decades, research suggests. (Photograph: Cathie Page)

A new global deal on climate change will come too late to save most
of the world's coral reefs, according to a US study that suggests major
ecological damage to the oceans is now inevitable.

Emissions of
carbon dioxide are making seawater so acidic that reefs including the
Great Barrier Reef off Australia could begin to break up within a few
decades, research by the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University in
California suggests. Even ambitious targets to stabilise greenhouse gas
levels in the atmosphere, as championed by Britain and Europe to stave
off dangerous climate change, still place more than 90% of coral reefs
in jeopardy.

Oceanographers Long Cao and Ken Caldeira looked at
how carbon dioxide dissolves in the sea as human emissions increase.
About a third of carbon pollution is soaked up in this way, where it
reacts with seawater to form carbonic acid. Experts say human activity
over the last two centuries has produced enough acid to lower the
average pH of global ocean surface waters by about 0.1 units.

Such
acidification spells problems for coral reefs, which rely on calcium
minerals called aragonite to build and maintain their exoskeletons.

"We
can't say for sure that [the reefs] will disappear but ... the
likelihood they will be able to persist is pretty small," said Caldeira.

The
new study was prompted by questions by a US congressional committee on
how possible carbon stabilisation targets would affect coral loss.

Carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million (ppm)
before the industrial revolution to more than 380ppm now. Campaigners
and politicians in Europe and the UK say a new global climate deal,
which is expected to be agreed next year, must aim to limit CO2 to
450ppm, though scientists say that is unlikely and the world is heading
for 550ppm or even 650ppm.

The research suggests that stabilising
world carbon levels at 450ppm would still dump so much carbon dioxide
in the oceans that only 8% of coral reefs would be surrounded by water
with enough aragonite to maintain their structure. Some 7% of the ocean
below 60 degrees south will see a shortage of aragonite, while parts of
the high latitude ocean could see a pH drop of 0.2 units.

At
550ppm CO2 in the atmosphere, no coral reef would have access to enough
of the mineral. Even stabilising CO2 at current levels would still
leave some 60% of coral bathed in seawater with low aragonite levels.

The
increased amounts of carbon dioxide going into the ocean will also
affect other marine life, such as shellfish, that need the calcium
mineral to build carbonate shells.

Writing in the journal Geophysical Research Letters,
the scientists say the risk posed by carbon pollution to coral and
marine life could justify a carbon stabilisation goal "lower than what
might be chosen based on climate considerations alone".

The
UK's Royal Society is preparing to issue a warning to policymakers on
the issue, together with dozens of other international science
academies.

Caldeira said the affected reefs would not disappear
straight away, but that the change in water chemistry would leave them
vulnerable to attack, bleaching or disease.

He said: "We're
losing the Arctic ice, it looks like we're going to lose the coral
reefs and we could lose much of the rainforest. I find it disconcerting
that these ecosystems that have been around on Earth for a long, long
time are no longer able to survive."

Share This Article

More in: