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Millions face impact of stunted reef growth

Monday, February 18, 2013
A Fan Coral

QUEENSLAND—Estimates of current rates of reef growth in the Caribbean have been described as “extremely alarming” by the leader of a team of international researchers conducting a study with Australia’s University of Queensland (UQ). According to an article published in Science Alert, UQ research indicates that many Caribbean coral reefs have either stopped growing or are on the verge of starting to erode with potential impacts to millions of people.


Coral reefs build their structures by producing and accumulating calcium carbonate which is essential for the maintenance and continued vertical growth capacity of reefs. The latest findings from UQ and the international research team show that the amount of new carbonate being added by Caribbean coral reefs is now significantly below rates measured over recent geological timescales, and is as much as 70 per cent lower in some habitats.


This discovery could affect millions of people who benefit from reef structures, according to Professor Peter Mumby from UQ's School of Biological Science. “Reef structures provide benefits such as being fishery habitats for seafood, they are used for recreational diving adventures, and often provide a natural barrier to storm surge,” Professor Mumby said.


“Our new findings imply that the benefits people receive from reefs will deteriorate considerably unless we take greater care of them.” The ability of coral reefs to maintain their structures and continue to grow depends on the addition of new carbonate. This is mostly produced by corals themselves, set against the loss of carbonate through various erosional processes.


The latest research, published in Nature Communications, is the first evidence that these ecological changes are now also impacting on the growth potential of reefs themselves. “Our estimates of current rates of reef growth in the Caribbean are extremely alarming. 


“Our study goes beyond only examining how much coral there is, to also look at the delicate balance of biological factors which determine whether coral reefs will continue to grow or will erode,” said Professor Chris Perry of the University of Exeter, who led the international team of researchers on this project.


“Our findings clearly show that recent ecological declines are now suppressing the growth potential of reefs in the region, and that this will have major implications for their ability to respond positively to future sea level rises. “It is most concerning that many coral reefs across the Caribbean have seemingly lost their capacity to produce enough carbonate to continue growing vertically, whilst others are already at a threshold where they may start to erode.





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