Coral reefs are renowned for their breathtaking beauty and the bounty of diverse life forms that live within their carbonate structures. This book is a testimony to this splendour and variety. Unfortunately, coral reefs are changing due to the influence of humans on the marine environment. These changes are coming about due to the exploitation of coral reef organisms and through insidious changes to the condition of the waters (increased sediments and nutrients) that surround them. While these changes are having a very large impact on coral reefs (Chapter 9), changes to important atmospheric components called greenhouse gases are driving even larger impacts due to rapid changes to global climate, including the seas in which coral reefs live. These effects of climate change have impacted coral reefs in a spectacular fashion, with thousands of square kilometres of often remote coral reefs becoming stressed, with often large numbers of reef-dwelling organisms dying. While the impacts on coral reefs are only a small subset of the ecosystem changes that are happening across the planet as a result of climate change, coral reefs have grabbed public attention. This is because they are the first iconic ecosystem to demonstrate that biological systems, rather than changing gradually, may change abruptly and substantially as a result of climate change.
In this chapter, the issue of climate change is outlined and discussed, particularly with references to past, current and future climate change. There are several major issues. The first is the unusual nature of the current changes in our climate system. The second is the response of coral reef organisms to our rapidly warming and acidifying ocean. The last concerns possible options we have for minimising the impacts of greenhouse driven change on coral reefs. Discussion of these issues leads us to several conclusions. First, coral reefs are unable to sustain atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide of more than 450 parts per million (ppm); efforts to reduce emissions must therefore be intensified. Second, efforts to reduce local stresses (e.g. declining water quality, over-exploitation of coral reef fish stocks; see Chapter 9) must be increased as coral reefs enter a period of a rapidly shifting oceanic climate. Addressing these two aspects aggressively over the next decade represents the last chance we have of preventing the loss of coral reefs for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
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