Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is expected to exceed 500 parts per million and global temperatures to rise by at least 2°C by 2050 to 2100, values that significantly exceed those of at least the past 420,000 years during which most extant marine organisms evolved. Under conditions expected in the 21st century, global warming and ocean acidification will compromise carbonate accretion, with corals becoming increasingly rare on reef systems. The result will be less diverse reef communities and carbonate reef structures that fail to be maintained. Climate change also exacerbates local stresses from declining water quality and overexploitation of key species, driving reefs increasingly toward the tipping point for functional collapse. This review presents future scenarios for coral reefs that predict increasingly serious consequences for reef-associated fisheries, tourism, coastal protection, and people. As the International Year of the Reef 2008 begins, scaled-up management intervention and decisive action on global emissions are required if the loss of coral-dominated ecosystems is to be avoided.
Coral reefs have been more severely impacted by recent climate instability than any other ecosystem on Earth. Corals tolerate a narrow range of physical environmental stress, and increases in sea temperature of just 1 1C over several weeks can result in mass coral mortality, often exceeding 95% of individuals over hundreds of square kilometres. Even conservative climate models predict that mass coral bleaching events could occur annually by 2050. Unfortunately, managers of coral-reef resources have few options available to meet this challenge. Here, we investigate the role that fisheries conservation tools, including the designation of marine reserves, can play in altering future trajectories of Caribbean coral reefs. We use an individual-based model of the ecological dynamics to test the influence of spatially realistic regimes of disturbance on coral populations. Two major sources of disturbance, hurricanes and coral bleaching, are simulated in contrasting regions of the Caribbean: Belize, Bonaire, and the Bahamas. Simulations are extended to 2099 using the HadGEM1 climate model. We find that coral populations can maintain themselves under all levels of hurricane disturbance providing that grazing levels are high. Regional differences in hurricane frequency are found to cause strikingly different spatial patterns of reef health with greater patchiness occurring in Belize, which has less frequent disturbance, than the Bahamas. The addition of coral bleaching led to a much more homogenous reef state over the seascape. Moreover, in the presence of bleaching, all reefs exhibited a decline in health over time, though with substantial variation among regions. Although the protection of herbivores does not prevent reef degradation it does delay rates of coral loss even under the most severe thermal and hurricane regimes. Thus, we can estimate the degree to which local conservation can help buy time for reefs with values ranging between 18 years in the Bahamas and over 50 years in Bonaire, compared with heavily fished systems. Ultimately, we demonstrate that local conservation measures can benefit reef ecosystem services but that their impact will vary spatially and temporally. Recognizing where such management interventions will either help or fail is an important step towards both achieving sustainable use of coral-reef resources and maximizing resource management investments.