Trying to predict how coral reefs will respond to warming oceans and a changing climate may be considered a daunting task for scientists. In the face of this challenge, scientists at AOML recently published a study that characterizes the organisms and processes that lead to coral reef accretion (build up) and bioerosion (break down) in the dynamic environments of the Gulf of Panama and Gulf of Chiriqui in the eastern Pacific.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, measured changes in the reef framework in several naturally high-carbon dioxide settings near Papua New Guinea. For the first time, scientists found increased activity of worms and other organisms that bore into the reef structure, resulting in a net loss of the framework that is the foundation of coral reef ecosystems.
The new research published online August 10 in Nature Climate Change provides a stark look into the future of ocean acidification – the absorption by the global oceans of increasing amounts of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions. Scientists predict that elevated carbon dioxide absorbed by the global oceans will drive similar ecosystem shifts, making it difficult for coral to build skeletons and easier for other plants and animals to erode them.
Corals live and thrive by maintaining a careful balance between their growth rate and the rate of erosion. Scientists already know the projected increases in carbon dioxide in our global oceans, known as ocean acidification, will slow the rate at which corals build the hard calcium carbonate skeletons that are the foundation of their habitat. A new study published online today in PLOS ONE demonstrates that in naturally highly acidified waters, these coral skeletons will also face increased erosion from microscopic organisms, called bioerosion. The result is accelerated breakdown and loss of reef structures, and potentially the loss of essential habitat.