Manchester Metropolitan University

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What future for coral reefs?

A NEW group of scientists led by MMU has joined the debate about the ability of the planet’s coral reefs and reef islands to cope with future climatic and environmental change.

The group, made up of geomorphologists - scientists who study the processes of the Earth’s surface - from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the USA, and the UK, believe that the omission of long-term geomorphological data from current reef health and reef landform stability assessments colours the current debate.

Under the auspices of a new International Association of Geomorphologists’ Working Group, the group has chosen a press conference in the lowest country on the planet - the Maldives - (1.5 metres above sea level) to start a wider conversation on reef and reef landform ‘health’ and to set a research agenda to address these globally relevant issues.

The group will be joined by representatives from the Maldives Government and the Pacific Islands Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC), for the Group’s first research meeting from June 21-26.

Huge concern

Chair of the group Professor Chris Perry, of Manchester Metropolitan University, UK said: "Reef health is of huge concern to scientists, governments and the public alike, but it would be a mistake to ignore the critical influence that past reef and reef island growth histories exert on contemporary ecological states.

"Assessments cannot be based only on short-term ecological studies which rarely take account either of when and how reefs and low-lying reef islands grew in the past, or the role of key physical and sedimentological processes that underpin reef and reef landform development.”

the conversation is particularly relevant to the management of low-lying islands such as the Maldives and others in the Pacific. In particular, it is widely believed that reef islands will become flooded and disappear from the tropical oceans rendering the inhabitants of small island nations the first environmental refugees of climate change.

The scientists question automatic assumptions about the dire consequences for the stability of reef platforms and reef islands (such as the Maldives) under projected sea-level rise scenarios.

Lacking rigour

"Such assertions are regularly made without rigorous assessment of the longer-term geomorphic history of reef islands or the processes that control physical change on reef islands," they say.

"These islands are largely constructed from reef-derived sediments, often produced by a small range of organisms. Thus a critical issue for their maintenance is how much sediment, and of what type, is produced on the adjacent reefs and transported to the islands by waves and currents" said Assoc. Professor Paul Kench, Co-Chair of the Working Group.

"Data on such processes are extremely limited."

And he added: ““Recent studies of island change have indicated that islands may be more persistent than has been generally regarded, but that they may undergo rapid physical changes and become more mobile on reef surfaces. Such physical changes pose serious environmental and management challenges to small island nation communities."

Major role

To support future adaptation strategies there is an urgent need to generate a sound scientific understanding of the controls on reef and island formation and change.

Whilst most of the emerging literature on reef ecosystem decline is driven from an ecological perspective, it is clear that geomorphology has a major role to play in the debate, particularly in terms of shoreline change, reef accretion rates and reef carbonate production.

Contact the International Association of Geomorphologists’ Working Group Chair, Professor Chris Perry at c.perry@mmu.ac.uk or Tel: +44 (0)161 247 6210
Fax: +44 (0)161 247 6318
Skype: chris.perry67

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