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Press Release: Coral reefs struggle to keep up with rising seas, leave coastal communities at risk

20 April 2017

Healthy Elkhorn coral
Healthy Elkhorn coral (Credit: Curt Storlazzi, USGS)

In the first ecosystem-wide study of changing sea depths at five large coral reef tracts in Florida, the Caribbean and Hawai’i, researchers found the sea floor is eroding in all five places, and the reefs cannot keep pace with sea level rise. As a result, coastal communities protected by the reefs are facing increased risks from storms, waves and erosion. The study, by the US Geological Survey (USGS), is published today in Biogeosciences, a journal of the European Geosciences Union.

At two sites in the Florida Keys, two in the US Virgin Islands, and in waters surrounding the Hawaiian island of Maui, coral reef degradation has caused sea floor depths to increase and sand and other sea floor materials to erode over the past few decades, the Biogeosciences study found. In the waters around Maui, the sea floor losses amounted to 81 million cubic meters of sand, rock and other material – about what it would take to fill up the Empire State Building 81 times, or an Olympic swimming pool about 32,000 times, the USGS researchers calculated.

As sea levels rise worldwide due to climate change, each of these ecologically and economically important reef ecosystems is projected to be affected by increasing water depths. The question of whether coral colonies can grow fast enough to keep up with rising seas is the subject of intense scientific research.

But the USGS study, published on April 20, 2017 in the journal Biogeosciences, found the combined effect of rising seas and sea floor erosion has already increased water depths more than what most scientists expected to occur many decades from now. Other studies that do not factor in sea floor erosion have predicted seas will rise by between 0.5 and 1 metre by 2100.

“Our measurements show that seafloor erosion has already caused water depths to increase to levels not predicted to occur until near the year 2100,” said biogeochemist Kimberly Yates of the USGS’ St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center, the study’s lead author. “At current rates, by 2100 sea floor erosion could increase water depths by two to eight times more than what has been predicted from sea level rise alone.”

The study did not determine specific causes for the sea floor erosion in these coral reef ecosystems. But the authors pointed out that coral reefs worldwide are declining due to a combination of forces, including natural processes, coastal development, overfishing, pollution, coral bleaching, diseases and ocean acidification (a change in seawater chemistry linked to the oceans’ absorption of more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere).

For each of the five coral reef ecosystems, the team gathered detailed sea floor measurements from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration taken between 1934 and 1982, and also used surveys done from the late 1990s to the 2000s by the USGS Lidar Program and the US Army Corps of Engineers. Until about the 1960s sea floor measurements were done by hand, using lead-weighted lines or sounding poles with depth markings. From approximately the 1960s on, most measurements were based on the time it takes an acoustic pulse to reach the sea floor and return. The USGS researchers converted the old measurements to a format comparable with recent lidar data.

They compared the old and new sets of measurements to find the mean elevation changes at each site. The method has been used by the US Army Corps of Engineers to track other kinds of sea floor changes, such as shifts in shipping channels. This is the first time it has been applied to whole coral reef ecosystems. Next the researchers developed a computer model that used the elevation changes to calculate the volume of sea floor material lost.

They found that, overall, sea floor elevation has decreased at all five sites, in amounts ranging from 0.09 metres to 0.8 metres. All five reef tracts also lost large amounts of coral, sand, and other sea floor materials to erosion.

“We saw lower rates of erosion—and even some localised increases in seafloor elevation—in areas that were protected, near refuges, or distant from human population centers,” Yates said. “But these were not significant enough to offset the ecosystem-wide pattern of erosion at each of our study sites.”

Worldwide, more than 200 million people live in coastal communities protected by coral reefs, which serve as natural barriers against storms, waves and erosion. These ecosystems also support jobs, provide about one-quarter of all fish harvests in the tropical oceans, and are important recreation and tourism sites.

“Coral reef systems have long been recognised for their important economic and ecological value,” said John Haines, Program Coordinator of the USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Program. “This study tells us that they have a critical role in building and sustaining the physical structure of the coastal seafloor, which supports healthy ecosystems and protects coastal communities. These important ecosystem services may be lost by the end of this century, and nearby communities may need to find ways to compensate for these losses.”

The study brought together ecosystem scientists and coastal engineers, who plan to use the results to assess the risks to coastal communities that rely on coral reefs for protection from storms and other hazards.

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Please mention the name of the publication (Biogeosciences) if reporting on this story and, if reporting online, include a link to the paper (http://www.biogeosciences.net/14/1739/2017) or to the journal website (http://www.biogeosciences.net).

More information

This is a joint press release with the United States Geological Survey on research presented in the paper ‘Divergence of seafloor elevation and sea level rise in coral reef ecosystems’, published in the EGU open access journal Biogeosciences on 20 April 2017.

Citation: Yates, K. K., Zawada, D. G., Smiley, N. A., and Tiling-Range, G.: Divergence of seafloor elevation and sea level rise in coral reef regions, Biogeosciences, doi:10.5194/bg-14-1739-2017, 2017

The team is composed of Kimberly K. Yates, David G. Zawada, Nathan A. Smiley (US Geological Survey, Coastal and Marine Science Center) and Ginger Tiling-Range (Cherokee Nation Technologies, contracted to the USGS)

The European Geosciences Union (EGU) is Europe’s premier geosciences union, dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in the Earth, planetary, and space sciences for the benefit of humanity, worldwide. It is a non-profit interdisciplinary learned association of scientists founded in 2002 with headquarters in Munich, Germany. The EGU has a current portfolio of 17 diverse scientific journals, which use an innovative open access format, and organises a number of topical meetings, and education and outreach activities. Its annual General Assembly is the largest and most prominent European geosciences event, attracting over 13,000 scientists from all over the world. The meeting’s sessions cover a wide range of topics, including volcanology, planetary exploration, the Earth’s internal structure and atmosphere, climate, energy, and resources. The EGU 2017 General Assembly is taking place in Vienna, Austria, from 23 to 28 April 2017. For information about meeting and press registration, please check http://media.egu.eu, or follow the EGU on Twitter and Facebook.

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Biogeosciences (BG) is an international scientific journal dedicated to the publication and discussion of research articles, short communications, and review papers on all aspects of the interactions between the biological, chemical, and physical processes in terrestrial or extraterrestrial life with the geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. The objective of the journal is to cut across the boundaries of established sciences and achieve an interdisciplinary view of these interactions. Experimental, conceptual, and modelling approaches are welcome.

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Scientist

Kimberly Yates
USGS Research Oceanographer
Petersburg, Florida
Phone: +1-727-502-8059
Email: kyates@usgs.gov

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Heather Dewar
USGS Public Affairs Specialist
Gainesvile, Florida
Phone: +1-352-264-3542
Email: hdewar@usgs.gov

Bárbara Ferreira
EGU Media and Communications Manager
Munich, Germany
Phone: +49-89-2180-6703
Email: media@egu.eu
Twitter: @EuroGeosciences

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