Coral Reefs at a Tipping Point

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (May 10, 2016, v113 n19 p5140–5141)/ by Sandeep Ravindran

Healthy coral reefs play a variety of important roles, from buffering coastal communities against storms to providing fishing and tourism opportunities. But reefs are fragile ecosystems, and more than a quarter of them worldwide are in decline due to overfishing, sediment runoff, and other human-inflicted causes.

These reefs, like numerous ecosystems facing strain due to climate change and other factors, are in danger of reaching “tipping points” in which small changes could precipitate large and often abrupt shifts in an ecosystem or climate system, transformations that are difficult to reverse. If scientists could predict the impending demise of a coral reef or pinpoint the primary factors at play, they could, in principle, find better ways to protect such precious resources.

That’s the idea behind the reef research of Kimberly Selkoe, at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Hawaii. She has been using the science of tipping points to study Hawaiian coral reefs and identify thresholds—for factors such as fish numbers or the presence of pollutants—beyond which reefs tip over from healthy to unhealthy states. Selkoe’s work relies on a careful mapping of the islands’ reefs, and on data—loads of it. …


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