Global change and coral reefs: impacts on reefs, economies and human cultures

Author: Wilkinson, C.R.

Description: Coral reefs have reconstituted themselves after previous large sea-level variations, and climate changes. For the past 6000 years of unusually stable sea-level, reefs have grown without serious interruptions. During recent decades, however, new stresses threaten localized devastation of many reefs. A new period of global climate change is occurring, stimulated by anthropogenic increases in greenhouse gases. Coral reefs will cope well with predicted sea-level rises of 4.5 cm per decade, but reef islands will not. Higher sea levels will provide corals with greater room for growth across reef flats, but there are no foreseeable mechanisms for reef island growth to keep pace with sea-level rise, therefore many low islands may ultimately become uninhabitable.

Climate change will introduce localized variations in weather patterns, but changes to individual reefs cannot be predicted. Reefs on average should cope well with regional climate change, as they have coped with similar previous fluctuations. Air temperature increases of 0.2-0.3 °C/decade will induce slower increases in sea-surface temperatures, which may cause localized, or regional increases in coral bleaching. Changes in rainfall will impact on reefs near land masses. Likewise, increased storms and variations in El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) may stress some reefs, but not others.

The greatest impact of climate change will be a synergistic enhancement of direct anthropogenic stresses (excessive sediment and pollution from the land; over-fishing, especially via destructive methods; mining of coral rock and sand; and engineering modifications), which currently cause most damage to coral reefs. Many of the world’s reefs have been degraded and more will be damaged as anthropogenic impacts increase under the “demophoric” increases in population (demos) and economic (phoric) activity. This biotic and habitat loss will result in severe economic and social losses. Reefs, however, have considerable recovery powers and losses can be minimized by effective management of direct human impacts and reducing indirect threats of global climate change.

Subject headings: Coral reefs; Economies; Fisheries; Global change; Pollution; Tourism; Climate change

Publication year: 1996

Journal or book title: Global Change Biology

Volume: 2

Issue: 6

Pages: 547-558

Find the full text :

Find more like this one (cited by):,16&hl=en

Type: Journal Article

Serial number: 2017