Coral reefs in the Anthropocene

The climate gauntlet faced by coral reefs

The climate gauntlet faced by coral reefs

TitleCoral reefs in the Anthropocene
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsHughes T.P, Barnes M.L, Bellwood D.R, Cinner J.E, Cumming G.S, Jackson J.BC, Kleypas J, van de Leemput I.A, Lough J.M, Morrison T.H, Palumbi S.R, van Nes E.H, Scheffer M.
Date Published2017/06
Type of ArticleReview
ISBN Number0028-0836
Accession NumberWOS:000402372800034
Keywords2 degrees-c; ecosystems; great-barrier-reef; heat tolerance; human impacts; ocean acidification; rapid climate-change; regime shifts; safe operating space; social-ecological systems

Coral reefs support immense biodiversity and provide important ecosystem services to many millions of people. Yet reefs are degrading rapidly in response to numerous anthropogenic drivers. In the coming centuries, reefs will run the gauntlet of climate change, and rising temperatures will transform them into new configurations, unlike anything observed previously by humans. Returning reefs to past configurations is no longer an option. Instead, the global challenge is to steer reefs through the Anthropocene era in a way that maintains their biological functions. Successful navigation of this transition will require radical changes in the science, management and governance of coral reefs.


Confronting the global coral reef crisis will require immediate action to address the emission of greenhouse gasses, as well as a clearer understanding of multiple drivers and ecosystem responses in the context of new, more realistic, scenarios of global climate change. We need to improve our grasp of the trajectories of interacting drivers and the responses of coral reefs to probable scenarios of shallow water temperatures and ocean pH. We should also incorporate the social sciences into our understanding of the dynamics of linked social–ecological systems. Anthropogenic drivers are becoming stronger and more diverse, as well as shifting in scale from local to global. Through globalization, coral reefs are becoming more accessible, which creates a variety of incentives for their exploitation but also has the potential to offers new solutions on the basis of multiscale governance, including international actions and policies. The challenge for the future is to steer away from the tipping points (Fig. 4) that are already manifesting at local scales. Future coral reef science should be re-oriented to test the effectiveness of policy and management solutions, to measure the success and failure of governance approaches and to modify them accordingly, and to guide the development of new policies.

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