Climate Change, Human Impacts, and the Resilience of Coral Reefs

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The effects caused by natural influences on the climate of the earth over the years have been augmented by human activities to tremendously change the earth’s climate. Thus, the rapid rise in temperatures in the lower atmosphere and near-earth surface has contributed to greater impact on both the dry land and ocean (AGU, 2003). Such changes in turn have affected the other organisms that share the ecosystem. The diversity, rate of recurrence, and degree of human impacts on coral reefs are increasing to the extent that reefs are globally under threat (Morgan and Ryan, 2002). These changes have been projected to immensely affect the coral reefs due to the fact that the human activities have continually led to increase in carbon-dioxide as well as temperatures which clearly exceed the conditions the corals have thrived over the past 500, 000 ,000 years (AGU, 2003). Despite all these, the reefs will undergo a change instead of complete disappearance.  Studies carried out indicate that some species of reefs exhibit greater tolerance to changes in the climate (Greer, Jackson, Curran, Guilderson, and Teneva, 2009).

In the marine environment, where they are found, the coral reefs create part of a striking feature in the ecosystem and they have the utmost biodiversity in this ecosystem of the marine set up. The adaptations exhibited by the reef creatures have been acquired through evolution over millions of years of their life in the turbulent environment in their natural habitat [i.e. where the land, sea and air meet; which is a stressful environment]. Through their years of evolution, the reefs have had to cope with destruction, and damage. Nevertheless, they have undergone recovery and re-growth (Buddemeier, Kleypas and Aronson 2004).

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There are a number of synergistic interactions that are as a result of human activities and which have led to the degradation of the reef ecosystem hence their mortality. Part of the whole issue lies in the effect of sediment loading and direct destruction of the reefs, modification of the coastal habitat and contamination. Increased nutrient loading has also had an effect on adding to the human stresses on the marine ecosystem besides over-fishing which has significant chronic effects. Rising ocean temperatures is increasingly threatening the survival of the coral reefs. This has been connected to their bleaching episodes. Another great concern is the ever increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as indicated on the ocean chemistry. This is also of serious concern given that it plays a major role in inhibiting calcification [that is, the process by which the building materials for coral reefs are deposited and collected together to allow for the formation of the coral]. Possibility of recovery of the coral reef from damage or mortality depends on the strength and frequency of the chronic environmental stress. If the environmental stress is less frequent or weak, the probability of recovery from damage and mortality is quite high (Buddemeier, Kleypas and Aronson 2004). In addition, if there are no acute stresses, the coral reefs are able to endure chronic stresses.  An intermarriage of the two environmental stresses, however, often gives rise to seaweeds or other non-reef system which in turn replace the coral reefs. Such an incident has been observed in the Caribbean region where there has been a devastation of coral species that build reefs (Greer, Jackson, Curran, Guilderson, and Teneva, 2009).

As human activities like industrialization continue to contribute heavily to the climatic change, predictions hold that the continued concentration of greenhouse gases (like emission of carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons), unchecked air pollution, escalating concentrations of particles in the atmosphere and the alteration of land will have an immense influence on the temperatures of the immediate earth’s surface and the ocean will become affected. However, reefs in the remote parts of the ocean will mainly be affected by the climatic change while those that are near the human populations will keep on sustaining the effects of the combinations of further stresses (Morgan and Ryan, 2002). For instance, they will be affected by reduced quality of water due to pollution, physical damage as well as too much harvesting. It may not be easy to predict with precision the future of the coral reefs given that the environmental changes being witnessed currently are resulting to combinations of conditions both in terms of ocean chemistry and temperature and which had never been witnessed before in the earth’s history.

How to help Improve the Resilience of the Coral Reefs

Having the understanding of the interaction between the two types of stresses and effects they have on the sustainability of the reefs, it should be endeavored to develop strategies that back up reef resilience. The strategies that are developed should be implemented vigorously. Alongside implementation, there should be strong policy decisions aimed at lessening the rate of global warming (Greer, Jackson, Curran, Guilderson, and Teneva, 2009). The stresses that are caused as a result of human activities should be considered as part of an integral intermarriage with other non-human factors and thus be understood and better managed. The effects of the climatic change are not the same but rather vary according to the region where the coral reefs are found. Lastly, the adaptation of the reef organisms to the marine ecosystem is acknowledged and assures their continued existence. Research into their adaptation and recovery from stress and damage or mortality should in addition enhance the monitoring of their environments.


  1. Greer, L., Jackson, J., E., Curran, H. A., Guilderson, T., and Teneva, L., (2009) “How vulnerable is Acropora cervicornis to environmental change?” Journal of Geology, 37 (3): 263-266.
  2. Buddemeier, W., R., Kleypas, J., A., Aronson, R., B., (2004) “Coral Reefs and Global Climate Change” Pew Center on Global Climate Change: 2101 Wilson Boulevard Suite 550 Arlington, VA 22201
  3. AGU- American Geophysical Union: (2003) “Climate Change and Global coral Reefs” accessed online from URL:
  4. Carbon dioxide Science Organization (2009) “Coral Reefs and Climate Change: Unproved Assumptions” CO2 Science 12, (3): 21 accessed online on 19th mar. 2009 from URL:
  5. Morgan, V, and Ryan, W., A., (2002). “Global climatic impacts of a collapse of the Atlantic thermohaline circulation.” Climatic Change 54: 254-265

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Climate Change, Human Impacts, and the Resilience of Coral Reefs. (2016, Sep 26). Retrieved from

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