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Climate and the latitudinal limits of subtropical reef development

June 22, 2021

Climate plays a central role in coral-reef development, especially in marginal environments. The high-latitude reefs of southeast Florida are currently non-accreting, relict systems with low coral cover. This region also did not support the extensive Late Pleistocene reef development observed in many other locations around the world; however, there is evidence of significant reef building in southeast Florida during the Holocene. Using 146 radiometric ages from reefs extending ~ 120 km along Florida’s southeast coast, we test the hypothesis that the latitudinal extent of Holocene reef development in this region was modulated by climatic variability. We demonstrate that although sea-level changes impacted rates of reef accretion and allowed reefs to backstep inshore as new habitats were flooded, sea level was not the ultimate cause of reef demise. Instead, we conclude that climate was the primary driver of the expansion and contraction of Florida’s reefs during the Holocene. Reefs grew to 26.7° N in southeast Florida during the relatively warm, stable climate at the beginning of the Holocene Thermal Maximum (HTM) ~ 10,000 years ago, but subsequent cooling and increased frequency of winter cold fronts were associated with the equatorward contraction of reef building. By ~ 7800 years ago, actively accreting reefs only extended to 26.1° N. Reefs further contracted to 25.8° N after 5800 years ago, and by 3000 years ago reef development had terminated throughout southern Florida (24.5–26.7° N). Modern warming is unlikely to simply reverse this trend, however, because the climate of the Anthropocene will be fundamentally different from the HTM. By increasing the frequency and intensity of both warm and cold extreme-weather events, contemporary climate change will instead amplify conditions inimical to reef development in marginal reef environments such as southern Florida, making them more likely to continue to deteriorate than to resume accretion in the future.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2021
Title Climate and the latitudinal limits of subtropical reef development
DOI 10.1038/s41598-021-87883-8
Authors Lauren T. Toth, William F. Precht, Alexander B. Modys, Anastasios Stathakopoulos, Martha L. Robbart, J. Harold Hudson, Anton E. Olenik, Bernhard M Riegl, Eugene A. Shinn, Richard B. Aronson
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Scientific Reports
Series Number
Index ID 70221585
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center