New research from the University of Hawaii at Manoa suggests that by 2100, coral reefs across the world may be nearing extinction due to climate change and the increasing acidification of ocean waters.

The research, presented at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in San Diego, mapped parts of the ocean deemed ideal for coral restoration based on acidity, water temperature, wave energy, human activity and fishing frequency. Their conclusion: by year 2100, “few to zero suitable coral habitats will remain.”

Lead researcher Renee Setter, a PhD candidate and biogeographer at UH Manoa, emphasized that warming and acidifying water, not pollution, is behind the dire prediction: “Trying to clean up the beaches is great and trying to combat pollution is fantastic. We need to continue those efforts. But at the end of the day, fighting climate change is really what we need to be advocating for in order to protect corals and avoid compounded stressors.”

Coral reef systems thrive in cooler waters. When the water temperature increases, corals release a symbiotic algae, causing bleaching. When the water temperature returns to normal, bleaching can be reversed, but if it doesn’t, entire reef systems can die off. When this happens, the diverse submarine wildlife typical of coral reefs is exchanged for barren, skeletal reef ruins, or sheets of invasive algae move in and dominate the ecosystem. Since up to 1/3 of all marine life rely on coral reefs, such large-scale reef extinction could result in unprecedented ecological collapse.

“By 2100, it’s looking quite grim,” said Setter.

More information on the research and implications can be found here.