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Half of the world’s reefs face unsuitable conditions by 2035

Our blue planet may face a coral reef catastrophe earlier than previously predicted. Using a new model called CMIP5, researchers from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa predict that half of the world’s coral reefs will face irreparable damage within 12 years if we don’t take steps to protect them. 

Coral reefs are particularly sensitive to changes in their environment, including ocean acidification, tropical storms, and increased sea surface temperature. Moreover, they are susceptible to other anthropogenic factors, such as increased human population and land use. 

“While the negative impacts of climate change on coral reefs are well known, this research shows that they are actually worse than anticipated due to a broad combination of climate change-induced stressors,” explained study lead author Renee Setter. “It was also enlightening to find that coral would face multiple stressors – posing an even greater hurdle and challenge that would need to be overcome to increase the possibility of survival.”

Using the model, the researchers found that a single stressor would cause unsuitable conditions for coral reefs by 2050. However, multiple stressors would result in unsuitable conditions by 2035. Moreover, by 2055, 99 percent of coral reefs will experience at least one stressor, and by 2100, 93 percent will face two or more stressors.

“We know that corals are vulnerable to increasing sea surface temperatures and marine heatwaves due to climate change. But it is important to include the complete anthropogenic impact and numerous stressors that coral reefs are exposed to in order to get a better sense of the overall risks to these ecosystems,” said study co-author Professor Erik Franklin. “This has great implications for our local Hawaiian reefs that are key to local biodiversity, culture, fisheries and tourism.”

The team will continue its research by exploring the impact of climate change on individual species to understand which species are most vulnerable to changing conditions. 

This research has been published in the journal PLOS Biology.

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By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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