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Researcher: Climate Change Drives Coral Reefs Toward Ecosystem Collapse Lasting 'Thousands Of Years'
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MELBOURNE, Florida -- Coral reefs could be on the verge of a total ecosystem collapse lasting thousands of years, according to a paper published this week in Science. The paper shows how natural climatic shifts stalled reef growth in the eastern Pacific for 2,500 years. The stall-out, which began 4,000 years ago, corresponds to a period of dramatic swings in the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). "As humans continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the climate is once again on the threshold of a new regime, with dire consequences for reef ecosystems unless we get control of climate change," said coauthor Richard Aronson, a biology professor at Florida Institute of Technology.

Doctoral student Lauren Toth and Aronson, her adviser at Florida Tech, led the study of how past episodes of climate change influenced tropical reefs of the eastern Pacific. Toth, Aronson and a multi-institutional research team drove 17-foot, small-bore aluminum pipes deep into the dead frameworks of coral reefs along the Pacific coast of Panama and pulled out cross-sections of the reefs. By analyzing the corals in the cores, they were able to reconstruct the history of the reefs over the past 6,000 years.

"We were shocked to find that 2,500 years of reef growth were missing from the frameworks," said Toth. "That gap represents the collapse of reef ecosystems for 40 percent of their total history." When Toth and Aronson examined reef records from other studies across the Pacific, they discovered the same gap in reefs as far away as Australia and Japan.

Toth linked the coral-reef collapse to changes in ENSO. ENSO is the climate cycle responsible for the weather conditions every few years known as El Niño and La Niña events. The timing of the stall-out in reef growth corresponds to a period of wild swings in ENSO. "Coral reefs are resilient ecosystems," said Toth. "For Pacific reefs to have collapsed for such a long time and over such a large geographic scale, they must have experienced a major climatic disturbance. That disturbance was an intensified ENSO regime."

Scenarios of climate change for the coming century echo the climate patterns that collapsed reefs in the eastern Pacific 4,000 years ago. The reefs off Panama are on the verge of another collapse. "Climate change could again destroy coral-reef ecosystems, but this time the root cause would be the human assault on the environment and the collapse could be longer-lasting," said Aronson. "Local issues like pollution and overfishing are major destructive forces and they need to be stopped, but they are trumped by climate change, which right now is the greatest threat to coral reefs."

Toth noted more hopefully that reefs have proven resilient in the past, so the potential for recovery should be good if climate change can be mitigated or reversed.

This research was supported by the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of, its staff or its advertisers.

Reader Comments

3 people have commented so far. cloud add your comment

Aronson says "...the root cause would be the human assault on the environment". I object to the word "assault". No human being is trying to assault the Earth--that would be suicide. This article is much too short to go into Everything about climate change; neither can my uneducated comments add much credibility. However, the following is true---the Earth existed much longer than their 6,000 year samples. Climate change happens, and maybe it is more natural than the researchers assume. Humans are not the only beings gassing off. There is much we can do, together, such as limiting births to those who are able to take care of their young, encouraging smaller, more local food production, eliminating bottled water, etc. Let's keep the solution positive. Words have power.
   comment# 1   - Mom of Two · Minneapolis, USA · Jul 6, 2012 @ 11:08am

George Carlin said it well,when he said, "the hell with saving the earth, it has been through ice ages, mega volcanoes, earth quakes, etc., and has come through very well each time.Save your own rear orifice".We have committed self inflicted sodomy,when it comes to managing the earth.We have done more damage then we will ever really know.It is time to leave it alone and let it heal itself.That will never happen and we all know why.GREED.
   comment# 2   - joe and claire · Atlantic City U.S.A. · Jul 8, 2012 @ 5:46pm

I am so tired of the HYPE of man made global warming. I am old enough to remeber the warnings about the coming ice age, if we didn't get rid of CFC's and Freon! That was in the early 70's, late 60's. I won't argue that the climate is changing, it has done that since the beginning of time. I have a hard time believing an industry that cannot reliably tell me if it will be sunny or dry 3 days from now, when they tell me the earth is going to burn up & WE are the cause. They aren't even able to correctly predict how much the sea level will rise if all the ice melts at the poles. Spend our time & money working on things that will improve the lives of the people in the arid areas & help them to survive instead of putting all these costly, uneffective rules & laws on productive industry, causing them to falter & lose the ability to innovatively bring solutions to market.
   comment# 3   - Jeff Mathews · Union City, CA · Jul 8, 2012 @ 7:21pm
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