Periods of anomalously warm ocean temperatures can lead to mass coral bleaching. Past studies have concluded that anthropogenic climate change may rapidly increase the frequency of these thermal stress events, leading to declines in coral cover, shifts in the composition of corals and other reef-dwelling organisms, and stress on the human populations who depend on coral reef ecosystems for food, income and shoreline protection. The ability of greenhouse gas mitigation to alter the near-term forecast for coral reefs is limited by the time lag between greenhouse gas emissions and the physical climate response.
This study uses observed sea surface temperatures and the results of global climate model forced with five different future emissions scenarios to evaluate the “committed warming” for coral reefs worldwide. The results show that the physical warming commitment from current accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere could cause over half of the world's coral reefs to experience harmfully frequent (p≥0.2 year−1) thermal stress by 2080. An additional “societal” warming commitment, caused by the time required to shift from a business-as-usual emissions trajectory to a 550 ppm CO2 stabilization trajectory, may cause over 80% of the world's coral reefs to experience harmfully frequent events by 2030. Thermal adaptation of 1.5°C would delay the thermal stress forecast by 50–80 years.
The results suggest that adaptation – via biological mechanisms, coral community shifts and/or management interventions – could provide time to change the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions and possibly avoid the recurrence of harmfully frequent events at the majority (97%) of the world's coral reefs this century. Without any thermal adaptation, atmospheric CO2 concentrations may need to be stabilized below current levels to avoid the degradation of coral reef ecosystems from frequent thermal stress events.