Rising sea level may cause decline of fringing coral reefs



[1] Coral reefs are major marine ecosystems and critical resources for marine diversity and fisheries. These ecosystems are widely recognized to be at risk from a number of stressors, and added to those in the past several decades is climate change due to anthropogenically driven increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Most threatening to most coral reefs are elevated sea surface temperatures and increased ocean acidity [e.g., Kleypas et al., 1999; Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2007], but sea level rise, another consequence of climate change, is also likely to increase sedimentary processes that potentially interfere with photosynthesis, feeding, recruitment, and other key physiological processes (Figure 1). Anderson et al. [2010] argue compellingly that potential hazardous impacts to coastlines from 21st-century sea level rise are greatly underestimated, particularly because of the rapid rate of rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that sea level will rise in the coming century (1990–2090) by 2.2–4.4 millimeters per year, when projected with little contribution from melting ice [Meehl et al., 2007]. New studies indicate that rapid melting of land ice could substantially increase the rate of sea level rise [Grinsted et al., 2009; Milne et al., 2009].


This research was supported by the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) Coastal and Marine Geology Program. C. Birkeland (University of Hawai'i) and J. Lacy (USGS) provided helpful and insightful review comments on an earlier version. S. Cochran and T. Fergoso assisted with the figures.