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Climate models do not reliably predict cyclone damage to coral reefs

In a new study led by the University of Leeds, experts report that climate models are unreliable when it comes to predicting how much coral reefs will be damaged by tropical cyclones.

As climate change increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like tropical cyclones, scientists are attempting to use climate models to identify reef communities that will be the most vulnerable to storm damage.

In the current study, however, experts warn that the climate models are not yet reliable enough to determine which reefs will be most at risk from cyclone damage. 

Cyclones produce destructive waves that can break apart or flatten coral reefs. The most damaging weather is found close to the eye of a cyclone.

“It can take decades to centuries for coral communities to recover from the damage that is caused by extreme weather events – and it is important that conservationists target their limited resources at those reefs which are more likely to survive climate change,” explained study co-author Dr Marji Puotinen, a scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

“To do that, they need to assess the vulnerability of coral reefs in the face of more extreme weather patterns. But currently, we are urging caution when it comes to predicting the damage that could be done to a coral reef from future cyclones.” 

The researchers analyzed the accuracy of climate models by looking at how well they predicted recent extreme weather events. The study revealed that the models had failed to account for all of the features of a cyclone that result in damaging waves.

While the climate models predicted that the average cyclone will be more intense in the future with medium to high confidence, the models were less certain about the impact of tropical cyclone wave damage on coral reefs. 

“Our investigation has identified the pros and cons of using climate models in coral reef conservation work,” explained Adele Dixon, a doctoral researcher at the University of Leeds who led the study.

“The models are accurate in projecting at a global scale that cyclones in the future are highly likely to be more intense because of climate change. But they are less accurate in projecting how those cyclones will affect individual coral reefs – that is the result of more localised conditions such as the pounding of waves.”  

According to the study authors, further research is needed to better understand the impacts of climate change on tropical cyclones and the damage they cause to coral reefs. 

The study is published in the journal Earth’s Future.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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