Effects of changing temperatures on coral reef health: implications for management Public Deposited

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  • March 21, 2019
  • Selig, Elizabeth Rose
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Curriculum in Environment and Ecology
  • Human-induced climate change has already led to substantial changes in a variety of ecosystems. Coral reefs are particularly vulnerable to rises in ocean temperature as a result of climate change because they already live near their thermal limits. However, we know little about the spatial patterns of temperature anomalies, areas of greater than usual temperature, which cause coral mortality and increased rates of coral disease. These gaps in knowledge make it difficult to design effective management strategies for mitigating the effects of ocean warming. My dissertation research uses a combination of a new satellite ocean temperature dataset, field surveys on coral health, and data on marine protected area (MPA) boundaries to analyze how ocean temperatures are affecting coral reef health at regional and global scales. I discovered that temperature anomalies are spatially and temporally variable from 1985-2005 even during El Niño events. They are also typically less than 50 km2, smaller than the resolution of many climate models. In addition, I found a strong relationship on the Great Barrier Reef between the number of temperature anomalies and the number of cases of white syndrome, a prevalent coral disease. Results from this study suggest that temperature anomalies are playing a major role in the observed decline of coral reefs over the last 30-40 years. This decline highlights the importance of determining whether MPAs, one of the most common management tools are effective in restoring coral cover. My analyses demonstrated that MPAs can confer some ecosystem resilience through fisheries management and land management practices at regional scales. Coral cover on reefs inside of MPAs did not change over time, while unprotected reefs experienced declines in coral cover. However, MPAs do not moderate the effect of thermal stress on corals or reduce coral decline at rates that can offset losses from thermal stress and other major natural and human-caused disturbances. MPAs are clearly a key tool in the management of fisheries and coral reef health. My dissertation research underscores the need for both MPAs and additional measures aimed at reducing the anthropogenic activities driving climate change.
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  • Bruno, John
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