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Keywords:

  • corals;
  • ozone depletion;
  • ultraviolet (UV) radiation;
  • UVB

Abstract

The discovery of the importance of solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR) as a factor affecting the biology of coral reefs dates only to about 1980. Interest has heightened during the past five years owing to the demonstration of loss of stratospheric ozone through human activities. We have only begun to document gross, qualitative effects of UVR on coral reef organisms, usually in experiments comparing the biological response to the presence or absence of UVR through the use of UV-cutoff filters, or to varying levels of UVR in transplantation studies. Most such studies have not distinguished between the effects of UVA (320–400 nm) and those of UVB (290–320 nm), although in the context of global change involving stratospheric ozone loss, it is the latter wavelengths that are relevant. To date we have been addressing physiological and ecological questions, not yet attempting to evaluate quantitatively the impact of forecast increases in solar UVB penetration. Interacting and synergistic effects of UVR with increased temperature, pollutants, sedimentation, visible light, etc. have scarcely been studied but will be essential to understanding and predicting the fate of coral reefs under conditions of global change.

Here we comprehensively review the effects of UVR on corals and other reef macroorganisms, mindful that although much is known of proximal effects, little of this knowledge is directly useful in making long-term predictions regarding the health of coral reefs. We conclude that even small anthropogenic increases in UVB levels will have sublethal physiological manifestations in corals and other reef organisms, but that this will have relatively small impact on the distribution of reef corals and coral reefs, perhaps affecting their minimum depths of occurrence.