Coral Reefs

Lead Author: 

Kenneth R N Anthony¹

Co Authors: Paul Marshall 2

Download this report in PDF format: Click here

What is happening?

During the past three decades, coral reefs have been impacted by a growing number of thermal bleaching events although their occurrence and severity have varied substantially in space and time. Numerous experimental and observational studies have established a causative link between thermal anomalies (stress) and coral bleaching

What is expected?

Projected increases in the frequency and severity of thermal stress events will increase the risk of mass coral bleaching events , leading to chronic degradation of most coral reefs by the middle to late parts of the century. Ocean acidification will reduce reef calcification driving a shift from net reef accretion to net erosion of reef structure..

What we are doing about it?

Formal adaptation plans are being implemented to help communities and industries that depend on Australia’s coral reefs to deal with the serious impacts of climate change. The Great Barrier Reef Climate Change Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan outlines strategies and measures to support ecosystem resilience, support adaptation by reef-dependent communities and industries, and raise awareness of the importance of urgent action to mitigate climate change if we are to improve the outlook for coral reefs.


Coral reefs worldwide are sensitive to climate change and ocean acidification. Australia has some of the World’s most spectacular coral reef ecosystems: the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) in the east and Ningaloo Reef in the west. Coral reefs also occur south of the GBR (extending to Lord Howe Island) and across northern Australia, including north Western Australia. The threat from climate change to the healthy functioning of these systems represents a significant risk to Australia’s natural heritage. Australian coral reefs support billions of dollars of economic activity per year, notably through tourism but also through commercial fishing and recreational activities. Climate change and ocean acidification will compromise the ability of coral reefs to sustain the ecosystem goods and services upon which society has come to depend.

The projected increase in the frequency and intensity of warming events (thermal anomalies) will increase the risk of bleaching and mortality of ecologically important coral species. Even if the world shifted now to a low Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) for carbon (e.g. the RCP 2.6 scenario by the IPCC), coral reefs are predicted to significantly degrade during this century due to committed climate change. For a high carbon-emission path (e.g. the RCP 8.5 scenario), there is high probability that reefs will cease to be dominated by diverse and structurally complex hard coral communities by the mid to late part of the century. Superimposed on global warming is the growing threat of ocean acidification caused by the accelerated uptake of CO2 from the atmosphere. Ocean acidification is expected to reduce rates of reef accretion, which is critical for reef maintenance and ecological function. Also, increased fragility of coral skeletons and accelerated rates of reef bio-erosion will increase the susceptibility of reefs to storm damage. Models of reef calcification under business-as-usual carbon emission paths predict that net rates of reef growth may become negative by the middle of the century.

Sea level rise, increased intensity of storms, floods driving further reductions in water quality and more extensive freshwater plumes in coastal zones, and altered oceanic circulation are important additional climate change factors. The projections of these variables and their implications are still less clear but are areas of active research. Based on current knowledge about the predicted physical and chemical changes in the ocean surface during this century, and the biological and ecological processes that drive reef responses, adaptation strategies are now being developed. Because there are still significant knowledge gaps in the area of climate change effects and responses by coral reef organisms and ecosystems, the development of adaptation strategies must themselves be adaptive as more knowledge accumulates. The key solution to reducing environmental threats to Australia’s coral reefs is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Secondary strategies for adaptation are to minimize regional and local-scale impacts to maximize reef resilience (i.e. the potential for restoring reef function following disturbances). These include halting and reversing the decline in water quality, implementing measures to ensure fishing is ecologically sustainable and addressing emergent threats such as crown-of-thorns starfish.

The importance of coral reefs
Coral reefs are among the World’s most species-rich ecosystems, and are often referred to as the rainforests of the sea (Knowlton 2001). Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR) and Ningaloo Reef are among the World’s most spectacular and biologically diverse coral reefs. The GBR stretches over 2200 km from the north of Fraser Island to Cape York, covering an area larger than Japan (Fernandes et al. 2005). Australian coral reefs provide critical habitats for a diversity of fauna and flora including more than 400 species of corals (Veron 2000), more than 300 species of species of fish (Williams and Hatcher 1983) and more than 5000 species of invertebrates (Hutchings et al. 2007). Preserving Australian coral reefs in an era of climate change is important for societal and conservation reasons: (1) they are unique natural ecosystems, (2) they are national icons, (3) the GBR is a world heritage area (Fernandes et al. 2005), and (4) they contribute significantly to the Australian GDP via tourism and related industries (AccessEconomics 2007).

Citation: Anthony, K.R.N. & Marshall, P (2012) Coral reefs. In In A Marine Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Report Card for Australia 2012 (Eds. E.S. Poloczanska, A.J. Hobday and A.J. Richardson). Retrieved from www.oceanclimatechange.org.au. [Date]

Contact Details: 
1 Australian Institute of Marine Science, Townsville, Qld, 4810, Australia
2 Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Climate Change Section, Townsville, Australia

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Kenneth Anthony

Ken anthony photo corals

Dr Ken Anthony’s primary research area is the effects of ocean acidification and climate change on coral reefs. A key focus of his research is...
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Paul Marshall

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Dr Paul Marshall is the Manager of the Climate Change Response Programme for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and an EcoAdapt Board...
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Scientific Review:

Coral reefs are sensitive to climate change. The principal climate-change factor, global warming, threatens the biological performance and survival of corals, the main reef-building organisms, by disrupting their functional relationship with algal symbionts during summer warming events (Hoegh-Guldberg 1999) and by lowering their growth rate (De’Ath et al. 2009). More than 20 years of observational and experimental research indicate that warming of the ocean surface will affect nearly every aspect of the biology and ecology of key coral reef builders, ranging from organism physiology (Jones et al. 1998), bleaching risk (Glynn 1991; Hoegh-Guldberg 1999), survivorship (Harriot 1985; Anthony et al. 2007) and reproduction (Szmant and Gassman 1990; Baird and Marshall 2002a).

Another climate-related impact is the intensity of tropical cyclones. Cyclones are a natural part the environmental history of coral reefs, but are predicted to intensify under climate change, in part due to a warming ocean surface (Walsh, 2000; Knutson 2010; Yamada et al. 2010). Tropical storms have already been observed to increase in intensity over the past three decades (Webster et al. 2005) and the Great Barrier Reef was impacted by five severe tropical cyclones between 2005 and 2011. Tropical Cyclone Yasi was the largest tropical storm system in history to cross the GBR, and led to extensive structural damage. Intense storms lead to episodic flood events, which reduce water quality in coastal areas (McCulloch et al. 2003; Fabricius et al. 2005). Sea level rise is another physical consequence of climate (Rahmstorf 2007). The combined effects of sea level rise and stronger storms may exacerbate impacts on coral reefs in areas where reef growth can not keep pace with sea level rise, in particular in the coastal zone where an increased storm surge can further reduce water quality.

In addition to climate change, an increasing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere leads to ocean acidification (Sabine et al. 2004). Ocean acidification is the direct chemical consequence of the carbon dioxide emission path, and is associated with less temporal uncertainty than the physical climate change factors (Fig. 1). Ocean acidification is predicted to impact coral reefs on a number of fronts (Hoegh-Guldberg 2007), most notably by lowering the calcification capacity of reef building organisms (Langdon et al. 2000), which may lead to a shift from net accretion to net erosion (Silverman et al. 2009). Impacts of ocean acidification have not yet been detected on Australia’s coral reefs, in part due to the extensive spatial and temporal variation in the carbon chemistry of reef waters driven by benthic processes (Anthony et al, 2011). A growing body of experimental research and work in reef areas with natural underground CO2 intrusions (Fabricius et al. 2011) demonstrate that levels of ocean acidification predicted for the mid to end of the century under a business-as-usual carbon emission path will contribute to significant degradation of reef ecosystem function.

The purpose of this review is to summarise observed and predicted impacts of climate change and ocean acidification on Australia’s coral reefs, and how these impacts will interact with other environmental stressors such as sea level rise, cyclones, water quality and fisheries. The review will also assess the current confidence in predicted impacts on coral reef function for projected climate and ocean change scenarios. Lastly, the review will help identify knowledge gaps and suggest a framework for adaptation strategies in a century of climate and ocean change.

Coral Reefs fig 1
Figure 1. Threats from an increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere on climate change (warming, cyclones and sea level rise) and ocean acidification (a chemical consequence) and the observed or predicted impacts on coral reefs.

Observed Impacts:

Global warming and coral bleaching
A prolonged (weeks to months) rise in sea surface temperature above the long-term mean for the season (thermal anomaly) is the primary cause of locally extensive (mass) coral bleaching events (Hoegh-Guldberg 1999; Strong et al. 2004; Eakin et al. 2009, Fig. 2). During the past three decades, the world’s coral reefs have been impacted by a growing number of thermal bleaching events (Oliver and Berkelmans 2009). The first mass coral bleaching events were reported in the scientific literature in the early 1980s (Yamazato 1981; Glynn and D’Croz 1990). Australia’s coral reefs have been impacted by bleaching events in 1980, 1982, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006.  The 1998 global thermal event devastated a large proportion of the World’s coral reefs (Wilkinson 2004), and 1998 and 2002 events were the worst on record for the GBR (Berkelmans et al. 2004).

Figure 2.  Periods of warmer than normal summer conditions can lead to extensive bleaching episodes for sensitive species such as branching Acropora which are among the most important builders of reef structure and habitats. Photo: Paul Marshall, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Image Library.

During the recent history of bleaching events on Australian coral reefs, their occurrence and severity have varied substantially in space and time.  Reasons for such variation include (1) regional variation in oceanographic processes (Weeks et al. 2008), (2) reduced light due to cloudiness (Mumby et al. 2001) or water turbidity (Anthony et al. 2004) and a local increase in bleaching resistance due to acclimation, adaptation or selective mortality of susceptible colonies in previous bleaching events (Maynard et al. 2008). Light is an important cofactors in the coral bleaching response (Mumby et al. 2001; Lesser and Farrell 2004) partly because light and temperature impact the same sub-cellular processes in the algal symbionts (Jones et al. 1998). Lastly, bleaching susceptibility also varies between coral species (Marshall and Baird 2000; Loya et al. 2001) and between populations within a species (Glynn et al. 2001; Berkelmans and van Oppen 2006; Ulstrup et al. 2006), further explaining the spatial variation in mass bleaching patterns.

Coral mortality from bleaching
The growth, survival and reproduction of corals rely on their symbiotic relationship with a group of dinoflagellates (Symbiodinium) being healthy and functional. The photosynthesis of these endosymbionts supplies the majority of the coral’s energy needed for maintenance, growth and reproduction (Muscatine 1990). Coral mortality following bleaching events will occur if warm conditions and high light levels continue, thereby preventing the reestablishment within the coral tissue of productive symbiont densities. Although mass bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef in 1998 and 2002 were severe, they led to only around 5% mortality overall. However, at some sites in the central GBR populations the mortality of some coral species was 100% (Berkelmans et al. 2004). The recent bleaching event at the inshore Keppel Islands in the southern GBR in 2006 caused around 40% coral mortality, but subsequently showed high recovery (Diaz-Pulido et al. 2009) indicating high local resilience.  The link between coral bleaching and mortality is complex and depends on a range of interacting environmental and biological factors (Anthony et al. 2007). One physiological mechanism that provides a functional link is that the coral symbiosis falls into critically low energy status following prolonged bleaching (Anthony et al. 2009). In areas with high availability of plankton as an alternative food source for the corals, however, coral mortality following bleaching events can be reduced in some species (Grottoli et al. 2006).

Ocean acidification
Tropical coral reefs are formed by the accretion of calcium carbonate (limestone) predominantly by scleractinian corals over periods of thousands of years (Veron 1995).  The increasing rate of CO2 uptake by the ocean surface (Sabine et al. 2004) as global atmospheric CO2 concentrations rise (Raupach et al. 2007; Friedlingstein et al. 2010) is causing a decline in ocean surface pH (Pelejero et al. 2005) and consequently a shift in the marine carbonate system towards a declining availability of carbonate ions (Feely et al. 2004). Carbonate ions are the chemical building blocks of all marine calcifying organisms (Raven et al. 2005) and the capacity for growth and maintenance of coral reef frameworks are directly related to the consntration of carbonate ions in the water (Langdon et al. 2000; Kleypas and Langdon 2006). Ocean acidification is expected to reduce rates of reef accretion (Langdon et al. 2000), which is critical for reef maintenance and ecological function (Kleypas and Langdon 2006). Also, ocean acidification leads to more fragile reef structures which will increase their susceptibility to storm damage (Madin et al. 2008).

While corals form most of the aragonitic reef framework and 3-dimensional habitats, groups of calcareous algae also contribute to consolidating the reef matrix (Diaz-Pulido et al. 2007). Crustose coralline algae are particularly sensitive to ocean acidification (Anthony et al. 2008; Kuffner et al. 2008), partly because their skeletons are composed of high-magnesian calcite, which has higher solubility (require a higher carbonate saturation state) than aragonite (Feely et al. 2004).

Damage to coral reefs by severe storms is part of the natural disturbance regime of coral reefs (Connell et al. 1997).  However, the results of two key studies suggest that the storm regime has already intensified in the past three decades. Firstly, the number of severe cyclones has nearly doubled over the past three decades in all ocean basins (Webster et al. 2005). Secondly, analyses of power dissipation by individual storms suggest that storm destructiveness has increased dramatically since 1970 (Emanuel 2005). Catastrophic storm events are considered rare. However, since 2005 the Great Barrier Reef has been impacted by five severe tropical cyclones. Among these, TC Yasi was the largest storm system to have impacted on the GBR and Queensland in modern history. Recent reviews suggest that extreme storms observed today contain an element of climate change as they have developed in a warmer and moister climate (Trenberth 2012). From an ecosystem perspective, because the extensive damage incurred by such extreme storms on reef ecosystems is likely to last for many years, they must be incorporated into adaptive management frameworks. Importantly, in addition to their direct damage to reef structure, severe storms also lead to periods of terrestrial run-off and sediment resuspension affecting the turbidity and salinity of coastal reefs in particular (Furnas 2002).

Sea level rise
During the past five decades sea level has risen by 2-3 mm per year worldwide (Bindoff et al. 2007). The impact of sea level rise at this rate will have had an only negligible impact on coral reefs for two reasons. Firstly, large parts of coral reef platforms and barrier reefs are subjected to tidal regimes of several meters (Kleypas 1996) and the vertical growth of reefs in shallow water are periodically constrained by extreme low tide events (Anthony and Kerswell 2007). Secondly, the linear extension rate of the slow-growing coral species Porites sp (Barnes and Lough 1999), one of the most important framework builders on Indo-Pacific coral reefs, is an order of magnitude greater than recent rates of sea level rise. The slowing of coral growth under warming and ocean acidification, and increased erosion by stronger storms, however, may increase the relative importance of sea level rise in the future.

Potential Impacts by the 2030s and 2100s: 

Consequences of warming events and ocean acidification for coral reef builders
Depending on whether an energy conscientious or a fossil-fuel intensive carbon-emission path is used for climate change projections (i.e. IPCC scenarios RCP 2.6 vs 8.5), the projected increase in the annual frequency and severity of thermal anomalies suggest a chronically high coral bleaching risk for most coral reefs by the middle to late parts of the century (McWilliams et al. 2005; Donner et al. 2009).  Because bleaching involves the partial or total loss of photosynthetic algal symbionts (Hoegh-Guldberg 1999), which supply the majority of the energy for the coral maintenance, growth and reproduction (Muscatine 1990), severe bleaching may result in increased rates of coral mortality (McClanahan 2004; Anthony et al. 2009) and reduced levels of growth and reproduction (Baird and Marshall 2002b) . Because the maximum life-span of corals (colonies or clones) ranges from decades to centuries, a significant decline in annual rates of survival`, growth rate and reproduction due to bleaching can have significant consequences for coral populations.  Although the onset of coral bleaching can be predicted based on short-term (days to weeks) projections of sea surface temperatures (Eakin et al. 2009), the large amount of variation associated with longer-term (months to years) SST projections render year-to-year bleaching predictions uncertain.  However, the predicted trend in global mean temperatures indicates a gradually increasing bleaching risk, which can be stated with high confidence.  The bleaching risk will also be affected by ENSO, or more specifically the El Nino / La Nina extremes as these will also affect the likelihood of the formation of storm systems, which have a regional cooling and shading effect that lowers the risk of coral bleaching.

The capacity of reef corals to acclimate or adapt to global warming is an area of contention (Buddemeier and Fautin 1993; Baker et al. 2004; Hoegh-Guldberg et al. 2007a; Baird et al. 2009).  Experimental and observational studies indicate that thermal adaptation and/or acclimatization is possible. However, given the steepness of the predicted global warming trend and the erratic nature of thermal events, an important yet unanswered question is whether climate change will outpace coral’s capacity for adaptation and/or acclimatization.

Ocean acidification

In contrast with the spatially and temporally probabilistic nature of thermal warming and cyclone formation driven by a range of short-term climatic variables, ocean acidification is a gradual and steady change in the chemistry of the ocean surface waters (Kleypas et al. 2006). Results from experimental and modelling studies of reef calcification responses to manipulated CO2 or pH changes (Kleypas and Langdon 2006; Silverman et al. 2009) combined with the lower variability in acidification projection models (Cao and Caldeira 2008), suggest that predictions of reef calcification decline during the 21st century will have relatively high confidence. Sources of uncertainty are predominantly attributable to local (Anthony et al. 2011) regional (Takahashi et al. 2002) and seasonal variation (Feely et al. 2002) in the CO2 uptake by oceans, and upwelling in coastal or shelf-break areas (Feely et al. 2008). Lastly, because coral reef growth and maintenance is the balance between accretion by calcifying corals and algae and erosional processes (physical and biological), an important consequence of reduced reef calcification and increased coral fragility may be a shift from net reef accretion to net erosion, i.e. reef shrinkage (Fig. 4). 

Sea level rise
A projected sea level rise of more than a meter during the 21st century may have consequences for reefs only if ocean acidification severely stunts reef growth (Hoegh-Guldberg et al. 2007b) and turbidity levels increase enough to compress the coral’s photic zone to very shallow water (Anthony et al. 2004).  While reef growth may keep pace with gradual sea level rise, a sudden rise in sea level (e.g. due to ice-sheet collapse,Vaughan and Spouge 2002) may push some coral assemblages outside their viable light niche, particularly if sea level rise is associated with an increase in turbidity due to coastal erosion. Because of the uncertainty in risk estimates for sea level rise, projected impacts on coral can only be assessed with low confidence.

As projections of climate variables driving cyclone formation are complex and associated with uncertainty (Walsh and Ryan 2000), predictions of cyclone activity for Australia during the 21st century can only be done with low to medium confidence at best. However, assuming that the observed trend in storm frequency during the past three decades (Emanuel 2005; Webster et al. 2005) continue, reef assemblages will be facing a future where they will be reset to depauperate and structurally poor assemblages with increasing frequency and intensity. Recent modelling efforts predict that tropical waters will see fewer but stronger storms (Knutson et al. 2010). In a climate of stronger storms, coral reefs will require longer times for recovery to climax assemblages. In addition to the direct physical impacts of storm damage, an intensified cyclone regime is likely to interact with other environmental variables. For example, cyclones lead to flooding events (Furnas 2002) and associated terrestrial run-off of freshwater and dissolved nutrients from coastal catchments (Devlin and Brodie 2005). Further, as coral skeletons are likely to become more susceptible to breakage under ocean acidification the damage from cyclones to reefs structure will be worsened (Madin et al. 2008), even if the cyclone regime remains unchanged.

Key Points: 

Interactions between multiple stressors
Climate change threats potentially impact on all organisational levels of the coral reef ecosystem with consequences ranging from lowered physiological performance and survival of individual species to community shifts and lowered reef resilience (Fig. 3). In addition to the various direct effects of climate change are their interactions with other stressors. There is now abundant evidence that many non-climate stressors interact to exacerbate the effects of climate stressors (Anthony et al. 2011b). For example, corals exposed to pollutants, low salinity, turbidity, sedimentation or pathogens bleach at lower temperatures (Hoegh-Guldberg 1999), and are often less likely to survive a bleaching event. Similarly, coral communities characterised by low herbivore biomass or elevated nutrients can be much slower to recover following bleaching-induced mortality, potentially remaining in an algal-dominated state for prolonged periods (decades or more). Conversely, corals that have experienced sub-lethal effects of elevated temperatures can be more susceptible to other pressure such as disease (Bruno et al. 2007). Examples of likely positive interactions include the potentially lowered bleaching risk in cyclonic weather, partly because heavy clouds reduce light stress, which add to bleaching risk (Mumby et al. 2001).

Figure 3. Conceptual layout of the linkages between climate change and ocean acidification and local/regional stressors on the vulnerability of coral reefs. Arrows indicate processes that link environmental threats/pressures to biological/ecological impacts and their flow-on effects to system resilience and vulnerability.

Implications for reef resilience
Because climate change is likely to amplify the disturbance regime for coral reefs, the fate of these ecosystems will increasingly be determined by their potential for recovery and long-term maintenance of structure, function and goods and services – i.e. their resilience (Nyström et al. 2000). Resilience-based management requires that management goals for marine ecosystems such as coral reefs be expanded to focus on process (e.g. recruitment success, algal removal rates), as well as state (e.g. coral abundance, density of fish). To preserve Australia’s coral reefs for future generations, it is critical that management efforts are invested into understanding the factors that influence the resilience of ecosystems, and prioritise management efforts toward restoring and maintaining ecosystem resilience. Adaptive resilience-based management is likely to offer the best hope for marine ecosystems in the face of climate change.

Figure 4. An important projected consequence of ocean acidification is that reduced reef calcification and enhanced erosional processes within the more fragile matrix may shift coral reefs from a state of net accretion (construction) to one of net erosion.


Confidence Assessments

Observed Impacts: 

Warming and coral bleaching
HIGH confidence. Numerous experimental and observational studies have established a causative link between thermal anomalies and coral bleaching.

Ocean acidification
MEDIUM-HIGH confidence. There is good and growing experimental evidence and consensus that a lowering of seawater aragonite saturation state will lead to reduced reef calcification.

MEDIUM confidence. The Great Barrier Reef has been impacted by five severe tropical cyclones since 2005, including the largest storm system to have made land fall in Queensland (Yasi in 2011). Studies indicate an increased frequency of severe storms on a global scale during the past three decades, The highly stochastic nature of cyclones prevents drawing an activity trend with high confidence for Australia.

Sea level rise
HIGH confidence. Because historical coral growth rates and tidal ranges on Australian coral reefs far exceed the observed rise in sea level during the past century, the effect of recent sea level rise on modern coral reef has been small.

Potential Impacts by the 2030s and 2100s: 

Warming and coral bleaching
HIGH confidence. Global temperature is one of the climate change variables that can be predicted with the highest precision using global carbon circulation models (Meehl et al. 2007). In view of this and the large body of experimental and observational studies that have established a strong causative link between temperature and coral bleaching, it can be stated with high confidence that warming risk (with impacts on coral bleaching, health and growth) during this century will increase. Although studies have demonstrated that acclimation or adaptation to increased temperatures do occur in natural coral populations, the unprecedented rate of ocean warming is likely to outpace capacity of corals to adapt or acclimatize.
Ocean acidification
HIGH confidence. Projected ocean chemistry changes under climate change are directly related to projected atmospheric CO2 concentrations, ocean temperatures and oceanography (Cao et al. 2007). Models combining CO2 and temperature projections for IPPC scenarios and reef calcification responses relatively consistently predict declining reef growth rates during the century (Kleypas et al. 2006; Hoegh-Guldberg et al. 2007; Silverman et al. 2009).

MODERATE confidence. The stochastic nature of cyclones and the complexity of meteorological forecasting place severe cyclones in the category of rare but extreme events. Recent modelling efforts predict that tropical storms will be fewer but stronger in the coming decades (Knutson et al. 2010).

Sea level rise
LOW confidence. While it can be stated with confidence that sea level is likely to increase over this century, the risks from sea level rise on coral reefs are uncertain as they depend on whether the rise is gradual or sudden, whether substantial ice-sheet collapse will occur, and on the side-effects of other processes such as land erosion and increased turbidity which may impact reefs in coastal waters.

Adaptation Responses

Many coral reef species, habitats and processes are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, putting at risk globally-significant biodiversity and heritage values (Australian National University, 2009) . Additionally, and consequently, climate change threatens to undermine the ability of Australian coral reefs to deliver the ecosystems goods and services that support many billions of dollars in economic activity in regional Australia. Taking measures to facilitate adaptation of coral reef ecosystems, and building the adaptive capacity of reef-dependent industries and communities, is of great national interest.

Mitigating the rate and extent of climate change remains an essential national and global priority if coral reefs are to retain a semblance of their current beauty and utility through this century. However, even if the most optimistic climate scenarios are achieved, substantial changes will occur to coral reef ecosystems. Australia’s coral reefs may fare better than most around the world, but impacts are inevitable.

Improved governance arrangements and adaptation of management approaches are required if reef ecosystems are to have the best chance of coping with climate change. Many local activities and stresses exacerbate the impacts of climate change, and effective management of these can have a large bearing on the ability of systems to resist or recover from climate change impacts. Poorly managed systems are less likely to recover and more likely to collapse as a result of external stresses from climate change. Therefore, the effectiveness of efforts to reduce local stresses, such as water pollution, fishing and habitat damage, is even more critical in the face of climate change (Marshall and Schuttenberg, 2006). Climate change is certain to cause further degradation to marine ecosystems in the course of this century. However, not all sites or habitats are equally affected by climate-related stresses, and sites that are naturally resistant to these stresses will become increasingly valuable to ecosystem resilience. Sites that might serve as climate change refugia will warrant especially effective management to protect them from other threats. The emergence of a new outbreak of crown-of-thorns starfish is causing additional concerns for the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef. Managers and scientists are collaborating to explore the feasibility of strategies to reduce further coral losses. Responsive measures such as these are part of an important effort to adapt coral reef management to build reef resilience in the face of climate change (Marshall and Johnson, 2007).

Changes to coral reef ecosystems will inevitably affect the communities and industries that depend on them (Fenton et al 2008). Coastal communities throughout tropical and sub-tropical Australia are dependent on coral reefs as a source of income and lifestyle. Industries such as marine tourism and fisheries (recreational, commercial and charter) rely on a healthy ecosystem and the goods and services it provides. Coastal communities also rely on the coral reefs for recreational opportunities, and for less quantifiable benefits such as coastal protection. The magnitude of the impacts of climate change will depend in large part on the resilience of these communities and industries, and especially on their capacity to adapt to the effects of climate change.

Adaptive capacity is one of the most critical aspects of resilience in social systems (Folke et al. 2002). Resilient social systems have the ability to learn and adapt, and resilient people and communities recognise, learn and even benefit from the new possibilities that change brings. Reef-dependent communities and industries are affected by a multitude of factors operating at multiple scales in time and space. While climate change imposes discrete pressures on people who depend on the coral reefs, its effects are mediated by the interactions they have with society, economy and the environment. Understanding the social and economic conditions, and regulatory environment, in which people operate can help understand their capacity to adapt to the effects of climate change. This understanding will provide the foundation for strategic initiatives that can build the resilience of communities and industries that depend on Australia’s coral reefs, and thus reduce the social and economic impacts from climate change (Marshall and Marshall 2007).

Formal adaptation plans are being implemented to help the social-ecological systems that depend on Australia’s coral reefs to deal with climate change. The Great Barrier Reef Climate Change Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan outlines strategies and measures to build ecosystem resilience and support adaptation by communities and industries that depend on the Great Barrier Reef. Under this Plan, key stakeholder groups are initiating sector-specific adaptation plans, including for tourism and fisheries on the Great Barrier Reef.

Figure 5. Conceptual resilience model depicting how pulse-type climate and ocean change disturbances (bleaching and storms) interact with press-type disturbances including ocean acidification in increasing the risk that coral reef ecosystems shift from healthy to degraded. From: Anthony and Maynard (2011).

Observations and Modelling

The following is a list of research and management needs that identify specific knowledge gaps:
• Multidisciplinary research is needed to unravel how global climate change interacts with local and regional environmental factors.
• Integrated approaches to better understanding the links between organism, population, community and ecosystem levels.
• Experimental resilience studies to strengthen predictions of thresholds for phase shifts under climate change
• Sensitivities of ecosystem function and goods and services to climate change and local disturbance regimes
• Feasibility and desirability of management interventions that target emerging, specific stresses on coral reef ecosystems, such as crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks
• Acclimatization and/or adaptation potentials of reef building organisms to ocean acidification
• Viable management options for ocean acidification
• Development of decision-support systems to enable managers and policy-makers to manage in the face of uncertainty
• Improved systems and approaches for integrated assessments of climate vulnerability
• Improved systems and approaches for integrated adaptation planning

Further Information

• Johnson, J and P. Marshall (eds.) (2007). Climate Change and the Great Barrier Reef: A Vulnerability Assessment. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and Australian Greenhouse Office, Australia. 818 pp.
• Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (2007). Great Barrier Reef Climate Change Action Plan 2007-2011. Townsville, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Townsville, Australia.
• Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (2009) Outlook Report. http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/outlook-for-the-reef
• Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority website http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au


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