Coral reefs in the time of climate change: how we know why they’re dying, and why it matters

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Last week, research from the University of Hawaii was presented at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in San Diego, suggesting that the future of coral reef systems across the globe is looking dire. Specifically, the study suggests that in the next 80 years, nearly all reef systems will be dead or dying as a result of climate change, which is currently causing ocean water to become warmer and more acidic.

KHON2 reached out to lead researcher Renee Setter, a PhD candidate and biogeographer at UH Manoa, with some followup questions about how the research was conducted, and why coral reefs matter.

KHON2: Can you briefly describe what your research did and what it concluded? 

Renee Setter: This research used climate change projections as well as projections for local human impact to determine the amount of stress coral may face by the end of the century under several potential scenarios. We examined projections for ocean temperatures, acidity, storms, human population density, and land use in order to assess their impact on coral survivability and restoration. It concluded that under our current trajectory for high climate change, few sites remain that would be viable for coral survival and restoration.

Why are coral reefs important? If your prediction is correct and there will be few reefs left, what exactly will be changed or lost? 

Corals offer not only economic benefits through tourism and support for fisheries, but they also are home to the greatest amount of biodiversity in our oceans. They are also essential in providing shoreline protection, which is increasingly important with rising sea levels. If we continue along the current trajectory for climate change, there could be devastating repercussions in the livelihood of all of the people and animals that depend on these ecosystems.

Why exactly are warming and acidifying waters harmful for reef systems?

Increasingly warm temperatures can lead to bleaching of coral; acidic waters make it hard for corals to build skeletons. Both of these factors are stressors to coral and can lead to degradation of the reef. 

What can people do to address a problem as large as climate change? Is this something that action on an individual level can even affect?

On an individual level, people can try to reduce their carbon footprint by flying less, moving toward a plant-based diet, and contacting their policymakers to encourage larger movement toward renewable energy.

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