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Originally published November 9 2009

Caribbean Coral Reefs Wiped Out by Climate Change

by David Gutierrez, staff writer

(NaturalNews) Global warming is devastating coral reefs in the Caribbean, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of East Anglia, England and Simon Fraser University in Canada, and published in the journal Biology Letters.

The researchers compared the results of 500 different surveys of 200 different Caribbean reefs, conducted between 1969 and 2008. They found that more complex reefs, including Staghorn Corals and Table Corals larger than one meter, had drastically declined, whereas a flat, rubble-strewn reef type has grown up to dominate the region in their place.

The flatter reefs now account for 75 percent of Caribbean coral reefs by area, up from a mere 20 percent in the 1970s.

This drastic transition was begun by disease, which killed off 90 percent of Staghorn and Elkhorn Corals in the 1970s, researchers said. The biggest change has come in the past decade, however, driven primarily by ocean warming. Rising sea temperatures cause the tiny organisms that build the reefs to abandon their colonies, killing them. Other sources of reef damage are over-fishing and coastal development.

This change in reef type is highly significant, the researchers warned, as corals play important roles in the Caribbean ecosystem.

"For many organisms, the complex structure of reefs provides refuge from predators," lead researcher Lorenzo Alvarez-Filip said. "This drastic loss of architectural complexity is clearly driving substantial declines in biodiversity, which will in turn affect coastal fishing communities. The loss of structure also vastly reduces the Caribbean's natural coastal defenses, significantly increasing the risk of coastal erosion and flooding."

While tall reefs cause storm surges to break upon them and lose power, flatter reefs provide significantly less protection to coastal communities.

"Lack of ... refuges for species with commercial importance, such as lobsters and large fishes may compromise the long-term sustainability of fisheries and fishing communities," the researchers warned.

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