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Learn how the USGS studies sea-level rise and climate change impacts to coral reefs.
This study is part of the USGS Coral Reef Project.
There is a growing body of evidence indicating that the rate of sea-level rise has increased relative to the past century and will continue to increase in the 21st century; that evidence has recently been summarized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). If all aspects of reef morphology—colony size and shape, cross-reef relief, surface rugosity, and so on—keep pace with the rising sea levels, then it is likely that changes in depth-controlled physical processes will be minimal to non-detectible. However, based on rates of vertical reef accretion in Hawaiʻi and throughout the Pacific (which are an order of magnitude smaller than predicted rates of sea-level rise), it is unlikely that reefs there and other locations will keep pace, and their inability to do so will lead to subtle but important changes in selected physical processes on some coral reefs.
In addition, recent studies indicate the flux of submarine groundwater discharge from land to coral reefs in Hawaiʻi and other high islands is substantial, and often significantly colder and enriched in terrestrial-derived nutrients than surrounding seawater. Ecosystem functions of submarine groundwater discharge to coral reef ecosystems are not quantified but can be hypothesized to (1) buffer thermal stress (bleaching) in corals experiencing warming, and (2) supply nutrients to otherwise oligotrophic coastal waters. While an excess of the latter has been observed to cause complete phase shifts in the form of wholesale loss of coral and replacement by macroalgae, the role of the former has not been tested. Both may be significantly altered by impending climate change and proposed land use that alter groundwater quantity, quality, flux, composition, and fate, especially in rapidly developing areas. This effort is focused on submarine groundwater discharge, its role in shaping coral reef ecosystem structure, and the ecosystem services it provides.
The overall objective of this research effort is to better understand how climate change may impact coral reefs. Achievement of this objective requires an understanding of the physical parameters driving change in coral reefs and the resulting ecosystem processes. The goals of this effort are to:
The approach to these interdisciplinary studies will rely on a combination of field measurements and physics-based numerical monitoring. We use a wide range of tools to try to answer these questions, including: oceanographic instruments (for example, acoustic Doppler current profilers, wave/tide gauges, temperature sensors, salinity sensors, chemical sensors) mounted on the seabed or on moorings, water-column profilers with similar suites of sensors, coral cores, geophysical water-column and sub-bottom surveys, and physics-based numerical models.
Below are data releases associated with this project.
Below are publications associated with this study.