What effect does global warming have on coral reefs and their inhabitants? —Pat, a high school student from Virginia
As humans continue to pump more and more carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, we are learning that the consequences are greater than just increasing temperature. The oceans absorb a large amount of CO2, which helps remove it from the atmosphere. Unfortunately though when CO2 dissolves in water, it creates a weak acid. Skeletons of corals and other animals with similar calcium carbonate structures (such as clams), begin to dissolve when exposed to acidic conditions. Shallow water reefs will suffer from both increasing temperature and acidic conditions because it will increase stress on their systems and make it harder to create their skeletons. Deep water corals will also be affected by acidic conditions, even though they are far below the surface. Corals provide the framework for both shallow and deep reef communities; so when the corals die, many of the animals that rely on them for habitat and food, will leave or die also. The effects of global climate change are very complicated and we do not fully understand how different ecosystems will respond. Unfortunately we put this process in motion many years ago and we have no choice but to try and deal with the consequences. Our job now is to try and keep the oceans as healthy as possible so they can withstand the threats of the future.
There is a lot of information about climate change on the internet but for a good overview and links to other information, try this website: http://www.mcbi.org/what/climate.htm