Is Climate Change Causing Coral Reef Osteoporosis?

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Published on January 7th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

Bleached coral

Another gloomy report on the effects of all of the carbon dioxide we humans are spewing into the atmosphere: Oceans are becoming more acidic.

This is particularly bad for living coral, the delicate little creatures that literally build the reefs that support an incredibly diverse amount of ocean life.

As reported in the latest issue of Science Magazine, scientists studying the Great Barrier Reef, which is over 2,000 miles long, found consistent evidence that one species of coral is growing much more slowly than 15 years ago.

And if this stunted growth continues, this particular species of coral could stop growing altogether.

Why is “osteoporosis of the reef” happening? Oceans are getting warmer, apparently as a result of global warming, and coral are super-sensitive to their habitat’s temperature.

But oceans are also becoming more acidic. The carbon dioxide we’re pumping into the atmosphere is absorbing into our oceans, increasing the acidity of the water. These “toxic oceans” makes it harder for living coral to build the skeletons that are the foundation of the reef ecosystem.

Rod Salm, the director of tropical marine conservation for the Nature Conservancy’s Asia-Pacific program, spoke with NPR in early January about what this means for the Great Barrier Reef:

“It looks pretty gloomy, I have to say, it looks really gloomy for the Great Barrier Reef. And I think there will be major changes there,” said Salm.

Could coral reefs in the Great Barrier Reef die off entirely by the end of the century? Salm doesn’t think so. But he stresses that we need to address climate change AND need to find and preserve reefs that are resilient to global warming and ocean acidification — to ensure coral reefs are still around when we finally are able to scale back our carbon dioxide emissions.

The Nature Conservancy likes this idea of resilience to climate change: We’re working all over the globe to ensure habitats can adapt to the inevitable changes brought by global warming.

As Salm told NPR: We’ve got to ensure something survives.

(Image: Bleached coral. Credit: photos.com)

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