Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Losing the rainforest of the sea: Coral reef decline and loss of future ecosystem benefits and services

*This is a guest post by Karuna Sehgal - student in my 'Causes & Consequences of Biodiversity' course. 

The past three decades of human activity has altered the earth in more ways than one. The Earth is losing species, ecosystems and biodiversity because of warming climates, among other factors. Coral reefs, in particular, are greatly impacted by the rise of global surface temperatures.

Coral Reefs throughout tropical and sub-tropical oceans are under tremendous heat stress resulting in coral bleaching and mortality. Corals are animals that live in a symbiotic relationship with microscopic dinoflagellate algae that inhabit the coral tissues (Baker et al., 2008). Increased water temperatures result in corals expelling dinoflagellates living in their tissues, causing the coral to turn white, ending its symbiotic relationship (Heron et al., 2017). This does not necessarily mean death for the coral; however bleaching still adversely impacts corals by inhibiting growth and reproduction (Heron et al., 2017). This symbiotic relationship provides the coral with about 90% of the energy it needs to thrive, it also enables corals to construct limestone skeletons that form the three-dimensional structure of reefs, which provides habitat for over a million species (Heron et al., 2017. They are referred to as the Rainforests of the Sea because they are the most bio-diverse ecosystem in the ocean, comparable to rainforests on land. Species richness and the diversity found in these systems are phenomenal and breathtaking, and yet they are dying at an alarming rate.

Fig. 1: Examples of a healthy and a bleached coral reef (images modified from Wikipedia pages on coral reefs and reef degradation, respectively)

Coral Reefs provide a lot of ecological and economically important services; they gross an estimated value of over $1 trillion (USD) globally, because of their social, economic and cultural services (Heron et al., 2017). With that being said, reefs only account for less than 0.1% of the ocean floor, but host more than one-quarter of all marine fish species (Heron et al., 2017). Climate change alters the pristine attractiveness of coral reefs to tourists, which directly affects low-income coastal countries and small developing islands within coral reef regions (Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2007). Developing countries are not equipped to respond to climate change, and many rely on tourism for the majority of their economies (Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2007). But tourist visits are one form of valuation, coral reefs are also critical for supporting fisheries and protecting shorelines from erosion,  For the loss of reef ecosystem services it is going to cost the US about $500 billion per year by 2100 (Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2015).

This loss of economic value through bleaching is ultimately caused by our activities. Anthropogenic activity has resulted in rising temperatures and increases in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide; this has been the largest increase in global temperature since the pre-industrial times (Stocker et al., 2013). Widespread mass coral bleaching was first documented in 1983 at the time of an extremely strong El Nino (Cofroth et al., 1989). It is important to note that coral reefs have been around a long time and residing in oceans since at least the Triassic period over 200 million years ago, and are well adapted to specific environmental conditions and human activity has damaged them in a matter of 30 years. Therefore water temperatures of even 1-2oC above the normal temperature would result in severe coral bleaching (Heron et al., 2017). It was estimated that coral reefs would take approximately 15- 25 years to recover from mass mortality, but if the frequency of mass mortality events increases to a point where the return time of mortality event is less than the time it takes to recover, the abundance of corals on reefs will decline (Heron et al., 2017).

Ocean acidification is another factor affecting coral reefs because it hinders the coral's ability to build their limestone skeletons and increases bio-erosion of reefs (Heron et al., 2017). With approximately 25% of the emitted CO2 from anthropogenic sources entering the ocean and producing carbonic acid, which then dissociates to form bicarbonate ions and protons, reducing the availability of carbonate to biological systems (Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2007). These high CO2 levels and ocean acidification are expected to cause coral reefs to erode. A number of studies have determined that the doubling of pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 to 560 ppm decreases coral calcification and growth by up to 40% through the inhibition of aragonite formation as carbonate-ion concentrations decrease (Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2007). Studies have concluded that the corals will not thrive again until the atmospheric CO2 has been reduced to 320-350 ppm (Heron et al., 2017).

Building the resilience of these reefs by reducing human impacts is now the main focus of organisations like the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO and the Reef Resilience Network. A World Heritage Committee analysis showed that nearly all of the 29 World Heritage coral reef sites were exposed to levels of heat stress that cause coral bleaching, more than twice per decade during the 1985-2013 period (Heron et al., 2017). Roughly 21 of the World Heritage reef properties have been exposed to repeated heat stress during the past three years (Heron et al., 2017), threatening the long-term persists of these unique and valuable places.

Fig. 2: Satellite image of coral bleaching alerts from  2014–2017 (image from NOAA Coral Reef Watch)
Bleaching and heat stress spread across tropical oceans and intensified during El Niño, and continued from La Niña and beyond (Heron et al., 2017). This period has included the three warmest years on record: 2014, 2015, and 2016 (Heron et al., 2017). Figure 2 shows that more than 70% of the global coral reef locations have experienced bleaching and most of these have experienced it twice or more, since June 2014 (Heron et al., 2017).

What is the future of these reefs? Will the next generation be able to see and explore them as we have or will they have to watch documentaries of what used to be? Coral Reefs are the most biologically diverse and economically important ecosystem on the planet, providing ecosystem services, essential to human societies and they are at danger (Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2007).


Baker AC, Glynn PW, Riegl B (2008) Climate change and coral reef bleaching: An ecological assessment of long-term impacts, recovery trends and future outlook. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 80:435-471.
Cofroth MA, Lasker HR, Oliver JK (1989) Coral mortality outside of the eastern Pacific during 1982-83: Relationship to El Niño. In: Global Ecological Consequences of the 1982-83 El Niño-Southern Oscillation. Glynn, PW. (ed.). Elsevier.
Heron et al. 2017. Impacts of Climate Change on World Heritage Coral Reefs : A First Global Scientific Assessment. Paris, UNESCO World Heritage Centre.
Hoegh-Guldberg O, et al. (2015) Reviving the Ocean Economy: the case for action - 2015. WWF International, Gland, Switzerland.Geneva, 60p.
O. Hoegh-Guldberg, P. J. Mumby, A. J. Hooten, R. S. Steneck. (2007). Coral Reefs Under Rapid Climate Change and Ocean Acidificaition. Science, 318, 1-7. Doi: 10.1126/science.1152509
Stocker TF, et al. (2013) Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group 1 (WG1) Contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 5th Assessment Report (AR5), Cambridge University Press. 


Friday, October 26, 2018

Do the economics and logistics of field ecology bias our understanding of environmental problems?

Location of Antarctic field stations. Image from Wikipedia.

Field ecology is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Ecologists need to make decisions about where to do research, and if research questions focus on remote locations, there are likely a lot of constraints limiting options. For example, if research requires work in the Antarctic, odds are you'll be working at one of a few locations on the coast which, depending on the nature of the research, could bias our understanding of ecological or geological processes operating there.

The research needed for some questions can literally occur almost anywhere without much worry about how local context biases findings. That's not to say that local context will not play a role in ecological dynamics, and we should always be mindful of how local conditions influence the processes we are interested in. However, some questions are sufficiently general that we could envisage running an experiment in our backyard. However, there are research questions that necessitate careful consideration of the geographical location of research.

This is especially true for questions that pertain to the consequences of environmental change on ecological systems. The drivers of environmental change, whether it be pollution, nutrient deposition, changing temperature, extreme weather events or changes in precipitation patterns, all vary across the Earth and their impacts are similarly unequal. We shouldn't expect that a 2 degree C increase in average temperature to have the same effect in the tropics as, say, the arctic.

Location of Nutrient Network sites used in Borer et al. 2014
For some research endeavors, the solution to ensuring geographical coverage has been to replicate studies around the world. Take for example studying the effects of nutrient deposition in grasslands. There is a long history of ecologists adding nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients to grasslands at specific locations in short duration experiments. These studies can tell us about how plant dominance might change, but it is difficult to extend this research to other locations facing different nutrient change patterns or that are inherently structured differently. The solution to this shortcoming is best represented by the globally distributed Nutrient Network experiment. The global experiment includes dozens of sites around the world that all replicate a basic set of experimental applications of plant nutrients, which has resulted in some very influential papers about global change effects on grasslands (e.g., Adler et al. 2011, Borer et al. 2014, Seabbloom et al. 2015).

This issue of the geography of research biasing our understanding of the impacts of global change is especially true for understanding the consequences of climate change in the Arctic. This was highlighted superbly by Metcalfe and colleagues recently (Metcalfe et al. 2018). They showed that most of the terrestrial ecology research in the Arctic has occurred in just a few places. And while this work has been extremely impactful and important for understanding the ecology of Arctic systems, they are not located in places undergoing the most drastic changes in climate. Therefore, because of the geographical location of research, we might not have a very good understanding of the impacts of climate change on Arctic ecosystems.

Where research is being done in the Arctic. Panel 'a' shows where publications are coming from and 'b' shows the impact in terms of number of citations (from Metcalfe et al. 2018).
This shows where photosynthesis has changed the most, which does not correspond well to where the research has been done (from Metcalfe et al. 2018).

This type of mismatch in climate change and research requires that ecologists purposefully establish research sites in areas that are rapidly changing. Metcalfe and colleagues suggest that the governments of Arctic nations establish focused research funding to support and promote research in these regions. This of course requires government dedication. The reality is it is cheaper and more efficient to do more research in existing, well supplied, field stations. Arctic scientists and professional organizations need to lobby environment or research government departments, and this research gap is an opportunity for Arctic governments to cooperate and share research costs.

Adler, P. B., E. W. Seabloom, E. T. Borer, H. Hillebrand, Y. Hautier, A. Hector, W. S. Harpole, L. R. O’Halloran, J. B. Grace, T. M. Anderson, J. D. Bakker, L. A. Biederman, C. S. Brown, Y. M. Buckley, L. B. Calabrese, C.-J. Chu, E. E. Cleland, S. L. Collins, K. L. Cottingham, M. J. Crawley, E. I. Damschen, K. F. Davies, N. M. DeCrappeo, P. A. Fay, J. Firn, P. Frater, E. I. Gasarch, D. S. Gruner, N. Hagenah, J. Hille Ris Lambers, H. Humphries, V. L. Jin, A. D. Kay, K. P. Kirkman, J. A. Klein, J. M. H. Knops, K. J. La Pierre, J. G. Lambrinos, W. Li, A. S. MacDougall, R. L. McCulley, B. A. Melbourne, C. E. Mitchell, J. L. Moore, J. W. Morgan, B. Mortensen, J. L. Orrock, S. M. Prober, D. A. Pyke, A. C. Risch, M. Schuetz, M. D. Smith, C. J. Stevens, L. L. Sullivan, G. Wang, P. D. Wragg, J. P. Wright, and L. H. Yang. 2011. Productivity Is a Poor Predictor of Plant Species Richness. Science 333:1750-1753.

Borer, E. T., E. W. Seabloom, D. S. Gruner, W. S. Harpole, H. Hillebrand, E. M. Lind, P. B. Adler, J. Alberti, T. M. Anderson, J. D. Bakker, L. Biederman, D. Blumenthal, C. S. Brown, L. A. Brudvig, Y. M. Buckley, M. Cadotte, C. Chu, E. E. Cleland, M. J. Crawley, P. Daleo, E. I. Damschen, K. F. Davies, N. M. DeCrappeo, G. Du, J. Firn, Y. Hautier, R. W. Heckman, A. Hector, J. HilleRisLambers, O. Iribarne, J. A. Klein, J. M. H. Knops, K. J. La Pierre, A. D. B. Leakey, W. Li, A. S. MacDougall, R. L. McCulley, B. A. Melbourne, C. E. Mitchell, J. L. Moore, B. Mortensen, L. R. O'Halloran, J. L. Orrock, J. Pascual, S. M. Prober, D. A. Pyke, A. C. Risch, M. Schuetz, M. D. Smith, C. J. Stevens, L. L. Sullivan, R. J. Williams, P. D. Wragg, J. P. Wright, and L. H. Yang. 2014. Herbivores and nutrients control grassland plant diversity via light limitation. Nature 508:517-520.

Metcalfe, D. B., T. D. Hermans, J. Ahlstrand, M. Becker, M. Berggren, R. G. Björk, M. P. Björkman, D. Blok, N. Chaudhary, C. J. N. e. Chisholm, and evolution. 2018. Patchy field sampling biases understanding of climate change impacts across the Arctic. Nature Ecology & Evolution 2:1443.

Seabloom, E. W., E. T. Borer, Y. M. Buckley, E. E. Cleland, K. F. Davies, J. Firn, W. S. Harpole, Y. Hautier, E. M. Lind, A. S. MacDougall, J. L. Orrock, S. M. Prober, P. B. Adler, T. M. Anderson, J. D. Bakker, L. A. Biederman, D. M. Blumenthal, C. S. Brown, L. A. Brudvig, M. Cadotte, C. Chu, K. L. Cottingham, M. J. Crawley, E. I. Damschen, C. M. Dantonio, N. M. DeCrappeo, G. Du, P. A. Fay, P. Frater, D. S. Gruner, N. Hagenah, A. Hector, H. Hillebrand, K. S. Hofmockel, H. C. Humphries, V. L. Jin, A. Kay, K. P. Kirkman, J. A. Klein, J. M. H. Knops, K. J. La Pierre, L. Ladwig, J. G. Lambrinos, Q. Li, W. Li, R. Marushia, R. L. McCulley, B. A. Melbourne, C. E. Mitchell, J. L. Moore, J. Morgan, B. Mortensen, L. R. O'Halloran, D. A. Pyke, A. C. Risch, M. Sankaran, M. Schuetz, A. Simonsen, M. D. Smith, C. J. Stevens, L. Sullivan, E. Wolkovich, P. D. Wragg, J. Wright, and L. Yang. 2015. Plant species' origin predicts dominance and response to nutrient enrichment and herbivores in global grasslands. Nat Commun 6.