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The past, present, and future of coral reef growth in the Florida Keys

July 5, 2022

Coral-reef degradation is driving global-scale reductions in reef-building capacity and the ecological, geological, and socioeconomic functions it supports. The persistence of those essential functions will depend on whether coral-reef management is able to rebalance the competing processes of reef accretion and erosion. Here, we reconstructed census-based carbonate budgets of 46 reefs throughout the Florida Keys from 1996 to 2019. We evaluated the environmental and ecological drivers of changing budget states and compared historical trends in reef-accretion potential to millennial-scale baselines of accretion from reef cores and future projections with coral restoration. We found that historically, most reefs had positive carbonate budgets, and many had reef-accretion potential comparable to the ~3 mm year−1 average accretion rate during the peak of regional reef building ~7000 years ago; however, declines in reef-building Acropora palmata and Orbicella spp. corals following a series of thermal stress events and coral disease outbreaks resulted in a shift from positive to negative budgets for most reefs in the region. By 2019, only ~15% of reefs had positive net carbonate production. Most of those reefs were in inshore, Lower Keys patch-reef habitats with low water clarity, supporting the hypothesis that environments with naturally low irradiance may provide a refugia from thermal stress. We caution that our estimated carbonate budgets are likely overly optimistic; comparison of reef-accretion potential to measured accretion from reef cores suggests that, by not accounting for the role of nonbiological physical and chemical erosion, census-based carbonate budgets may underestimate total erosion by ~1 mm year−1 (−1.15 kg CaCO3 m−2 year−1). Although the present state of Florida's reefs is dire, we demonstrate that the restoration of reef-building corals has the potential to help mitigate declines in reef accretion in some locations, which could allow some key ecosystem functions to be maintained until the threat of global climate change is addressed.

Publication Year 2022
Title The past, present, and future of coral reef growth in the Florida Keys
DOI 10.1111/gcb.16295
Authors Lauren Toth, Travis A. Courtney, Michael A. Colella, Selena Anne-Marie Johnson, Robert R. Ruzicka
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Global Change Biology
Index ID 70236532
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center