The outlook for coral reefs remains grim unless we cut emissions fast — new research


Morgan Pratchett, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, CC BY-ND

Christopher Cornwall, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington and Verena Schoepf, University of AmsterdamThe twin stress factors of ocean warming and acidification increasingly threaten coral reefs worldwide, but relatively little is known about how various climate scenarios will affect coral reef growth rates.

Our research, published today, paints a grim picture. We estimate that even under the most optimistic emissions scenarios, we’ll see dramatic reductions in coral reef growth globally.
The good news is that 63% of all reefs in this emissions scenario will still be able to grow by 2100.

But if emissions continue to rise unabated, we predict 94% of coral reefs globally will be eroding by 2050. Even under an intermediate emissions scenario, we project a worst-case outcome in which coral reefs on average will no longer be able to grow vertically by 2100.

The latter scenarios would have dramatic consequences for marine biodiversity and the millions of people who depend on healthy, actively growing coral reefs for livelihoods and shoreline protection. This highlights the urgency and importance of acting now to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Coral reefs are home to more than 830,000 species and provide coastal communities with food and income through fisheries and tourism.

The Great Barrier Reef alone contributes A$6.4 billion to the Australian economy. Critically, coral reefs also protect coastlines from storm surges and create land for many low-lying Indo-Pacific island nations.

Marine heatwaves, caused by ongoing ocean warming, have already had a severe impact on coral reef ecosystems by triggering mass bleaching events. These events are becoming more frequent and intense, and cause mass die-offs across large areas.

Bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef
Marine heatwaves trigger mass bleaching and coral die-offs.
Morgan Pratchett, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, CC BY-ND

Ocean acidification also reduces the growth of corals by limiting their ability to build their skeletons from calcium carbonate. Together, these stressors threaten the ability of coral reefs to grow and keep up with sea level rise.

Complex impacts from ocean warming and acidification

Our understanding of how ocean warming and acidification threaten reef-forming species has improved considerably over the past decade. However, understanding how coral reef growth will be altered by climate change is more complex than simply measuring rates of change from individual taxonomic groups of corals.

Our study of 183 reefs worldwide provides the first quantitative estimate of how most of the processes that control reef growth respond to climate change and affect carbonate accumulation and growth rates.

Coral reef
Coral on the Great Barrier Reef during the 2020 bleaching event.
Morgan Pratchett, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, CC BY-ND

Reefs grow by layering calcium carbonate, produced either by corals and coralline algae. The amount of calcium carbonate built by these reefs depends on many factors.

Cyclones, waves and currents can flush parts of the reef away. Acidifying ocean water means more dissolves chemically. And there is a biological carbonate exchange, known as bio-erosion. Sponges, parrotfish, sea urchins and algae can all eat it, but then return some as defecated sand.

Depending on which of these processes dominates, coral reefs either grow and accrete vertically, or they start to erode. Most of these processes vary for each reef, and almost all are affected by climate change.




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To complicate matters, the frequency and intensity of marine heatwaves will vary geographically, making it difficult to estimate to what degree coral mass bleaching events will reduce coral cover.

In our research, we applied these local and global processes to 233 locations on 183 distinct coral reefs that vary in their species compositions and physical complexity. We found significant variability in responses to ocean acidification and warming.

Geographical and species variability

We predict coral mass bleaching events will have the largest impact on carbonate production across all sites. The world’s coral reefs have already been transformed dramatically by these events over the past few decades.

Coral bleaching at the Maledives
Coral reef in the Maldives, before coral mass bleachign event.
Chris Perry, CC BY-ND



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Diver and equipment at a coral reef
Experimental setup used to measure calcification coralline algae on the Great Barrier Reef.
Guillermo Diaz-Pulido, CC BY-ND

We used the documented impacts of the 2016 mass bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, which affected a large range of reefs with different species compositions, depths and latitudes. During this event, each reef experienced varying heat stress, which manifested in different levels of coral cover loss.

This information helped us to calibrate models to predict heat-stress events globally between now and 2100 and to gauge the future magnitudes of heat stress and their impact on our study sites.

We found currently degraded reefs fared poorly in our model, even under lower emissions scenarios. Reefs whose carbonate production was more robust against the effects of climate change tended to be those with high present-day carbonate production rates, higher contributions from coralline algae (which are also vulnerbable, but comparatively more resistant to warming than corals) and low rates of bio-erosion.

Hope for coral reefs

In higher emissions scenarios, even reefs dominated by coralline algae began to suffer as ocean acidification and warming intensified. It is also important to note that such reefs will provide different, and perhaps reduced, services compared to coral-dominated reefs because they are structurally less complex.

People standing on a coal reef
Team members assess coral health during the 2016 bleaching event in the Kimberley, Western Australia.
Christopher Cornwall, CC BY-ND

We did not explore in depth whether remaining coral reef communities could gain tolerance to rising temperatures over time. This could manifest as an increase in the proportional abundance of heat-tolerant species as more heat-sensitive corals die during mass bleaching events.

Surviving corals could acclimatise or even adapt. But whether these mechanisms could provide hope for the continued growth of coral reefs in the future — and if so, to what extent — is largely unknown. Nor can we say if more heat-tolerant corals could sustain similar rates of reef growth and structural complexity.

Coral reef in Chagos
A coral reef in Chagos before a bleaching event in April 2016.
Chris Perry, CC BY-ND

The best hope to save coral reefs and their ecological, societal and economic benefits is to reduce our carbon emissions dramatically, and quickly. Even under our projected intermediate scenarios we expect mean global erosion of coral reefs.

Under the lowest emissions scenario we examined, we expect profound changes in coral reef growth rates and their ability to provide ecosystem services. In this scenario, only some reefs will be able to keep pace with rising sea levels.

We owe it to our children and grandchildren to reduce emissions now, if we have any hope of them witnessing the majestic nature of coral reef ecosystems.The Conversation

Christopher Cornwall, Rutherford Discovery Fellow, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington and Verena Schoepf, Assistant Professor, University of Amsterdam

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New research finds native forest logging did not worsen the Black Summer bushfires


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David Bowman, University of TasmaniaThe Black Summer bushfires shocked the world and generated enormous global media interest. Fire scientists like myself found themselves filling a role not unlike sport commentators, explaining the unfolding drama in real time.

Scientists who engaged with the media during the crisis straddled two competing imperatives. First was their duty to share their knowledge with the community while knowing their understanding is imperfect. Second was the ethical obligation to rigorously test hypotheses against data analysis and peer review – the results of which could only be known long after the fires were out.

One area where this tension emerged was around the influential idea that logging exacerbated the bushfire disaster. During the fire crisis and in the months afterwards, some scientists suggested logging profoundly affected the fires’ severity and frequency. There were associated calls to cease native forestry and shift wood production to plantations.

But there is no scientific consensus about the possible effects of logging on fire risk. In fact, research by myself and colleagues, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution today, shows logging had little if any effect on the Black Summer bushfires. Rather, the disaster’s huge extent and severity were more likely due to unprecedented drought and sustained hot, windy weather.

These findings are significant for several reasons. Getting to the bottom of the bushfires’ cause is essential for sustainable forest management. And, more importantly, our research confirms the devastating role climate change played in the Black Summer fires.

Firefighters recover after battling blazes at Kangaroo Island on 10 January 2019.
David Mariuz/AAP

Looking for patterns

Our research focused on 7 million hectares of mostly eucalyptus forests, from the subtropics to temperate zones, which burned between August 2019 and March 2020.

There is some evidence to suggest logged areas are more flammable that unlogged forests. Proponents of this view say logging regimes make the remaining forests hotter and drier, and leave debris on the ground that increases the fuel load.

In our research, we wanted to determine:

  • the relative roles logging and other factors such as climate played in fires that destroyed or completely scorched forest canopies
  • whether plantations are more vulnerable to canopy scorch than native forests.

To do so, we used landscape ecology techniques that could compare very large areas with different patterns of land use and fire severity. We sampled 32% of the area burnt in three regions spanning the geographic range of the fires.




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firefighters run past fire
The research used landscape ecology techniques to compare large areas.
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What we found

Fire intensity is classified according to the vertical layer of vegetation burnt. A scorched tree canopy suggests the most intense type of fire, where the heat extended from the ground to the treetops.

We found several predictors of canopy damage. First, completely scorched canopy, or canopy consumed by fire, typically occurred across connected swathes of bushland. This most likely reflected instances where the fire made a “run”, driven by localised winds.

Extreme weather fire conditions were the next most important predictor of canopy damage. The drought had created vast areas of tinder-dry forests. Temperatures during the fire season were hot and westerly winds were strong.

Southeast Australia’s climate has changed, making such extreme fire weather more frequent, prolonged and severe.

Logging activity in the last 25 years consistently ranked “low” as a driver of fire severity. This makes sense for several reasons.

As noted above, fire conditions were extraordinarily extreme. And there was mismatch between the massive area burnt and the comparatively small areas commercially logged in the last 25 years (4.5% in eastern Victoria, 5.3% in southern NSW and 7.8% in northern NSW).

Fire severity is also related to landscape features: fire on ridges is generally worse than in sheltered valleys.

Our research also found timber plantations were as prone to severe fire as native forestry areas. In NSW (the worst-affected state) one-quarter of plantations burned – than 70% severely. This counteracts the suggestion using plantations, rather than logging native forest, can avoid purported fire hazards.




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plantation forest divided by road
Plantation forests were found to be highly flammable.
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A challenge awaits

Our findings are deeply concerning. They signal there is no quick fix to the ongoing fire crisis afflicting Australia and other flammable landscapes.

The crisis is being driven by relentless climate change. Terrifyingly, it has the potential to turn forests from critical stores of carbon into volatile sources of carbon emissions released when vegetation burns.

Under a rapidly warming and drying climate, fuel loads are likely to become less important in determining fire extent and severity. This will make it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to lower fuel loads in a way that will limit bushfire severity.

A massive challenge awaits. We must find socially and environmentally acceptable ways to make forests more resilient to fire while the also produce sustainable timber products, store carbon, provide water and protect biodiversity.

The next step is a real-world evaluation of management options. One idea worth exploring is whether the fire resistance of native forests can be improved in specific areas by altering tree density, vegetation structure or fuel loads, while sustaining biodiversity and amenity.

Commercial forestry could potentially do this, with significant innovation and willingness to let go of current practices.

Through collective effort, I’m confident we can sustainably manage of forests and fire. Our study is but a small step in a much bigger, zig-zagging journey of discovery.




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forest regenerating after fire
Forests must become fire-resilient while performing other functions.
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David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.