Coral reef complexity
Hubbard, Dennis Geology Department, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio.
- Evolution of the problem
- Agreeing on causes
- Agreeing on solutions
- Links to Primary Literature
- Additional Readings
Coral reefs occupy some 600,000 km2 (232,000 mi2) of tropical seafloor. Like rain forests, they maintain high diversity by recycling limited resources within a tight loop. This allows high productivity at a low cost, but potentially creates a susceptibility to perturbation by even small disturbances. Nevertheless, reefs have shown remarkable stability when considered on larger time scales over the past few million years. Historically, they have likewise shown surprising resilience to increasing human exploitation. Recently, however, reefs have changed dramatically, from coral dominance to overgrowth by macroalgae (seaweeds and kelps; Fig. 1). A typical example of this problem has been observed in a study of the decline in Jamaican reefs between 1975 and 1995 (Fig. 2), a pattern that has been repeated in every ocean where coral reefs occur. Suggested causes include overfishing, increased sedimentation, pollution, nutrient loading (quantity of nutrients entering an ecosystem in a given period of time), and climate change. The persistence of high coral cover until the 1970s, despite increasing stress, highlights an apparent nonlinearity in the response by the world's reefs, a factor that further complicates our ability to predict future scenarios.
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