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Carbon dioxide proves surprise source of hope for reefs at risk

SARAH ELKS From: The Australian November 10, 2011 12:00AM

 

CORAL reefs may be able to withstand climate change better than previously thought, with new research showing some reefs can protect themselves from dangerous ocean acidity by absorbing carbon dioxide.

CORAL reefs may be able to withstand climate change better than previously thought, with new research showing some reefs can protect themselves from dangerous ocean acidity by absorbing carbon dioxide.

Ocean acidification, sparked by an increasing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, makes coral more brittle and slows its growth. Until now, scientists believed the world's reefs were at equal risk of the phenomenon.

However, in two papers published in the international journal Global Change Biology, Australian Institute of Marine Science researcher Ken Anthony says some reefs react differently from others.

"Overall, ocean acidification is bad news for coral reefs," said Dr Anthony, AIMS's climate change and ocean acidification research team leader.


"(But) areas with high rates of photosynthesis such as seagrass beds and lagoon areas with sand and algae can make coral reefs next door . . . less vulnerable to ocean acidification."

Dr Anthony said in these "little areas of hope", some CO2 in the water was naturally absorbed, counteracting the change to the ocean's pH (acidity).

However, reefs with greater coral cover produce more carbon dioxide and worsen acidification in the surrounding waters.

Dr Anthony said even though it was now known that some coral reefs were at a lower risk of damage by ocean acidification than others, it was not enough to protect them in the long term from climate change.

"It will help us buy some time, and will help us at a local level (to see which reefs) will be the real casualties, but (we) can only do it for so long," he said.

"If CO2 gets so high and cyclones get more severe . . . corals won't grow and we can do as much as we want on the ground (but) it's not going to save the reef.

"We need to fix the global carbon problem to secure the future for coral reefs globally."

Dr Anthony said the next step would be to prepare "risk maps" of the world's reefs, such as the Great Barrier Reef, to determine which areas would be most threatened by an increase in ocean acidity.

Then, he said, reef managers would know where to restrict pressures such as fishing and chemical runoff. "We're hoping to have a good picture of where there's short-term hope."

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