Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Coral calcification and ocean acidification

January 1, 2016

Over 60 years ago, the discovery that light increased calcification in the coral plant-animal symbiosis triggered interest in explaining the phenomenon and understanding the mechanisms involved. Major findings along the way include the observation that carbon fixed by photosynthesis in the zooxanthellae is translocated to animal cells throughout the colony and that corals can therefore live as autotrophs in many situations. Recent research has focused on explaining the observed reduction in calcification rate with increasing ocean acidification (OA). Experiments have shown a direct correlation between declining ocean pH, declining aragonite saturation state (Ωarag), declining [CO32_] and coral calcification. Nearly all previous reports on OA identify Ωarag or its surrogate [CO32] as the factor driving coral calcification. However, the alternate “Proton Flux Hypothesis” stated that coral calcification is controlled by diffusion limitation of net H+ transport through the boundary layer in relation to availability of dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC). The “Two Compartment Proton Flux Model” expanded this explanation and synthesized diverse observations into a universal model that explains many paradoxes of coral metabolism, morphology and plasticity of growth form in addition to observed coral skeletal growth response to OA. It is now clear that irradiance is the main driver of net photosynthesis (Pnet), which in turn drives net calcification (Gnet), and alters pH in the bulk water surrounding the coral. Pnet controls [CO32] and thus Ωarag of the bulk water over the diel cycle. Changes in Ωarag and pH lag behind Gnet throughout the daily cycle by two or more hours. The flux rate Pnet, rather than concentration-based parameters (e.g., Ωarag, [CO3 2], pH and [DIC]:[H+] ratio) is the primary driver of Gnet. Daytime coral metabolism rapidly removes DIC from the bulk seawater. Photosynthesis increases the bulk seawater pH while providing the energy that drives calcification and increases in Gnet. These relationships result in a correlation between Gnet and Ωarag, with both parameters being variables dependent on Pnet. Consequently the correlation between Gnet and Ωarag varies widely between different locations and times depending on the relative metabolic contributions of various calcifying and photosynthesizing organisms and local rates of carbonate dissolution. High rates of H+ efflux continue for several hours following the mid-day Gnet peak suggesting that corals have difficulty in shedding waste protons as described by the Proton Flux Model. DIC flux (uptake) tracks Pnet and Gnet and drops off rapidly after the photosynthesis-calcification maxima, indicating that corals can cope more effectively with the problem of limited DIC supply compared to the problem of eliminating H+. Predictive models of future global changes in coral and coral reef growth based on oceanic Ωarag must include the influence of future changes in localized Pnet on Gnet as well as changes in rates of reef carbonate dissolution. The correlation between Ωarag and Gnet over the diel cycle is simply the result of increasing pH due to photosynthesis that shifts the CO2-carbonate system equilibria to increase [CO32] relative to the other DIC components of [HCO3] and [CO2]. Therefore Ωarag closely tracks pH as an effect of Pnet, which also drives changes in Gnet. Measurements of DIC flux and H+ flux are far more useful than concentrations in describing coral metabolism dynamics. Coral reefs are systems that exist in constant disequilibrium with the water column.

Publication Year 2016
Title Coral calcification and ocean acidification
DOI 10.1007/978-94-017-7567-0
Authors Paul L. Jokiel, Christopher P. Jury, Ilsa B. Kuffner
Publication Type Book Chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Index ID 70175412
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center