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Study Finds Doubling of Atmospheric CO2 from Pre-Industrial Levels Could Result in Dissolution of Coral Reefs

10 March 2009

Researchers at the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem warn that if atmospheric carbon dioxide reaches double pre-industrial levels, coral reefs can be expected to not just stop growing, but also to begin dissolving. Their study will be  published online 13 March in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Caldeira
Aragonite saturation at different atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Pre-industrial concentration was ~ 280 ppm. Current concentration is >380 ppm. In the absence of strong policy, atmospheric CO2 will reach 550 ppm in several decades. Coral reefs are unlikely to survive in regions colored yellow, orange, or red. Source: Caldeira House testimony Feb 2009. Click to enlarge.

The impact on reefs is a consequence of both ocean acidification caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide into seawater and rising water temperatures. Previous studies have shown that rising carbon dioxide will slow coral growth, but this is the first study to show that coral reefs can be expected to start dissolving just about everywhere in just a few decades, unless carbon dioxide emissions are cut deeply and soon.

In testimony before the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife of the Committee on Natural Resources on 25 February, study co-author Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology said:

Globally, each second, we dump over 1000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and, each second, about 300 tons of that carbon dioxide is going into the oceans. We can say with a high degree of certainty that all of this CO2 will make the oceans more acidic—that is simple chemistry taught to freshman college students. It is less certain how coral reefs, and marine ecosystems generally, will respond, but there are several lines of evidence—all of them disturbing.

“Our fossil-fueled lifestyle is killing off coral reefs. If we don’t change our ways soon, in the next few decades we will destroy what took millions of years to create. Coral reefs may be the canary in the coal mine.”
—Ken Caldeira

The study was designed determine the impact of this acidification on coral reefs. The research team, consisting of Jacob Silverman, Caldeira, and Long Cao of the Carnegie Institution as well as Boaz Lazar and Jonathan Erez from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, used field data from coral reefs to determine the effects of temperature and water chemistry on coral calcification rates.

They input the field data to a model to calculate global seawater temperature and chemistry at different atmospheric levels of CO2 ranging from the pre-industrial value of 280 ppm (parts per million) to 750 ppm. The current atmospheric concentration is more than 380 ppm, and is rapidly rising due to human-caused emissions, primarily through the burning of fossil fuels.

Based on the model results for more than 9,000 reef locations, the researchers determined that at the highest concentration studied, 750 ppm, acidification of seawater would reduce calcification rates of three quarters of the world’s reefs to less than 20% of pre-industrial rates. Field studies suggest that at such low rates, coral growth would not be able to keep up with dissolution and other natural as well as manmade destructive processes attacking reefs.

Prospects for reefs are even worse when the effects of coral bleaching are included in the model. Coral bleaching refers to the loss of symbiotic algae that are essential for healthy growth of coral colonies. Bleaching is already a widespread problem, and high temperatures are among the factors known to promote bleaching.

According to their model, the researchers calculated that under present conditions 30% of reefs have already undergone bleaching and that at CO2 levels of 560 ppm (twice pre-industrial levels) the combined effects of acidification and bleaching will reduce the calcification rates of all the world’s reefs by 80% or more. This lowered calcification rate will render all reefs vulnerable to dissolution, without even considering other threats to reefs, such as pollution.

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Comments

It's a shame that the median of the basket of predictive modelling suggests that even the 550 scenarios will leave mean no one left standing will be capable of noticing such minor details.

I'm sure there will be comments following explaining the virtues of year round saunas for polar bears.

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Even worse (yes, start panicking now) - "studies" show that increased CO2 (stop breathing, will you!) makes women get fat... and men go bald. WE NEED MORE LAWS!!! NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!

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"According to their model, the researchers calculated that under present conditions 30% of reefs have already undergone bleaching and..."

Well, right here, based on the track record of GCMs - we can throw this report in the ashcan. Why? Well, 'cause the hockey stick, and ten years of IPCC models have been unable to predict even the current global cooling or that of the past ten years. So, based on the evidence, climate models including this one are unproven, dysfunctional science and predictions based on such models are false.

This was a great website, it's a shame it's now infested with deniers intent on spreading their misinformation. I think anyone with a modicum of sanity has given up and logged out. You are arguing against basic high school chemistry if you dispute the basic thesis of this post.

By the way, there is no global cooling.The 'cool' 2008 was still one of the tenth hottest years on record.

Read some Real climate and learn:

http://tinyurl.com/d84tl7

Reel and Goracle or trolls with either too much time or are the typical denialist fanatics trying to show how much they know by being the biggest jacks around and basically showing how little they know or care to know.

You don't need laws to stop AGW or destruction of the ecosystem. You just have to stick your head where the sun doesn't shine and ideas can't get in so that when the fisheries attached to these systems collapse (which every commercial fishery in the world is doing anyway) or some other consequence like more droughts or infestations, you can also not have to listen as the free services that measure in the trillions of dollars dry up also.

And yes modeling. The same type of modeling that they do when designing your car, your house, skyscrapers, your tv and probably everything you've been exposed to that was created by people. Modeling is an essential part of the way people view the world. Modeling goes hand in hand with theories. They allow sensitiviy analysis and what if scenarios. What do the denialists use? They use modeling as well. Very poorly with logical holes you can drive through but yes modeling.

That crack shows how much denialism is based on a faith belief on a world view that is about a unscientific as one can get. Similar to the attacks on continental drift and to this day on evolution.

The denialists are certainly fundamentalist in character. The rest of us try to learn and adapt our understanding with reference to first principles.

Every time we fly in an aeroplane we should thank the scientific body and the engineers who apply these natural laws in modelling how this affects the application of our understanding to the real world.

Modelling is how we test our theory and design and hope to find flaws before wasting time and money and to avert disaster.

As with most mindless adherence to dogma, the deniers somehow manage a mirror opposite conclusion which also, somehow aligns with the political, economic, social world view.

I'd half expect to recognise them as walking down the street backwards.

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