Bleak outlook for coral reefs

22 Jun 2007
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Noordhoek, Cape Town
Hi folks,

What follows is a terribly bleak prediction of the future state of the world's reefs.

The author is Thomas J. Goreau, PhD. He's the president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance.

I received this in today's Coral-List mailing list email. If you'd like to receive it too, read about it here:



To those seriously concerned about climate change and the future of
coral reefs:

Climate change has been a minor subject on the coral list server
until recently, when a flurry of postings, focusing largely on the
merits of different cars rather than impacts on corals, appeared in
response to a recent Science article. According to press reports,
this article makes predictions, based on models, that climate change
might begin to affect reefs in 50-70 years.

This is overly optimistic! In fact we could lose most of what is left
in the next extreme hot year that exceeds 1998, and this could come
at any time. Statistically, based on the Global Coral Reef Alliance
database of global coral reef satellite sea surface temperatures
since 1982, it is due this year. But we can't be exactly certain
because of the noise in the climate system (I published many papers
on this with Ray Hayes since 1990, none cited in the Science paper).
The real news is that we have ALREADY passed the tipping point. And
that what emerged from Bali was cynical abandonment of coral reefs
and countries that depend on them. The oil and coal burners chose to
sacrifice reefs because they don't want to be inconvenienced by
changing their polluting ways, and they don't care what happens to
coral reefs, island nations, low lying coasts, or even the future of
their own children. But they can't say that they weren't warned what
was happening.

These opinions are based on empirical data, not on models (like the
Science paper) that are only general qualitative descriptions of
reality. If this seems like just another outrageous personal opinion,
bear in mind that I am the only coral reef scientist with degrees in
atmospheric physics and chemistry from MIT, Caltech, and Harvard. As
a teenager I wrote computer programs that correctly predicted zonal
wind speeds on Saturn decades before space probes confirmed them and
was asked to do my PhD writing general circulation models to predict
the climatic effects of CO2 increase. I refused to get back to coral
reefs and warm water. I set up the first labs in the Amazon to
measure greenhouse gases at high precision, made the first
measurements of tropical jungle deforestation effects on atmospheric
chemistry, and in the 1980s published half a dozen papers on
stabilization of atmospheric CO2. When these were ignored, I went
back to restoring coral reefs, the most financially unrewarding
activity that I know.

Paleoclimatic data clearly shows that the IPCC projections for future
climate change have seriously underestimated the sensitivity of
temperature and sea level to CO2. The last time in earth history when
global temperatures were 1 degree C above today's, sea levels were 7
meters higher than now, and hippopotamuses and crocodiles flourished
in London, England. Because CO2 was then one third lower than today's
value, the conditions then greatly UNDERESTIMATE what will happen
when temperature and sea level eventually equilibrate with TODAY'S
level of CO2, even if we never burn another gram of coal or oil or
natural gas starting immediately. I showed this in briefings to
delegates at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, predicting
that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (and the later
Kyoto Protocol to FCCC) was so weak that it was guaranteed to kill
coral reefs. I warned that we would lose most corals to heat shock in
the next decades if negotiators failed to stop global warming then
and there. I showed that the IPCC had systematically underestimated
the impacts for two very simple reasons: 1) the models they use fail
to include the vast bulk of the positive feedback mechanisms that the
empirical data proves exists in the Earth Climate System, and 2) the
time horizon for their predictions was 1 to 2 orders of magnitude
shorter than the response time of the system, so they only covered
the initial effects, and missed the bulk of the total response.

As Senior Scientific Affairs Officer for global climate change and
biodiversity at the United Nations Centre for Science and Technology
for Development, I had a lot of input into the draft of the Framework
Convention on Climate Change. At that point it was already clear that
coral reefs were the most temperature sensitive ecosystem, and we had
already developed the Goreau-Hayes HotSpot method for predicting the
location, timing, and intensity of bleaching from satellite data
alone before it could be seen in the field. Unfortunately this was
widely denied and ridiculed by our colleagues, who later copied our
data-based conclusions word for word as "common knowledge" without
bothering to cite the sources (there is a word for this that I'm too
polite to use here). I personally inserted the words "coral reefs"
every place in the original draft UN Framework Convention on Climate
Change where they belonged, insisted explicitly on COMPLETE
accounting of all greenhouse gas sources and sinks, and added that
one of the goals of the convention was to protect Earth's most
temperature-sensitive ecosystems. What the UN sent out to governments
was vastly better than what they got back! Governments made
scientific nonsense of the treaty by confusing net with gross fluxes,
rewarding bogus carbon sinks while ignoring the real ones, failing to
identify the most climatically sensitive ecosystems and requiring
that they be monitored for signs of temperature stress, and failing
to establlish trigger mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
if such stress was in fact shown. Minutes after the Convention was
passed in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, I passed out leaflets describing it
as a death sentence for coral reefs.

I was the only coral reef researcher at the UN Convention on Climate
Change in Bali, on the delegation of Jamaica, on the delegation of
the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (an Inter-Governmental
Organization representing almost all Caribbean States), as
Coordinator of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable
Development Partnership in New Technologies for Small Island
Developing States, as President of the Global Coral Reef Alliance,
and as Science Advisor to Yayasan Karang Lestari (Foundation for
Protected Corals, an Indonesian Non Governmental Organization that
runs the world's largest coral reef and fisheries habitat restoration

My briefings to the 41 member states of the Association of Small
Island States (the island nations of the Pacific, Caribbean, and
Indian Ocean) and to the Indonesian Government (the host country and
home to the largest and richest coral reefs in the world), also
passed out to all of the nearly 200 governments present, pointed out
that: 1) the impacts of climate change had been seriously and
systematically underestimated, and the threat was much worse and more
imminent than recognized, with coral reefs and island nations being
the first and worst victims 2) that we could lose most remaining
corals in the next extreme hot year, 3) that the EU proposal to allow
CO2 to rise to 450 ppm and temperature to rise by 2 degrees C
(blocked by the US, Canada, Japan, the Arab oil producing states,
China, India, and Russia for their own reasons) was unacceptable to
small island developing states because it meant sacrificing coral
reefs, fisheries, and shore protection against rising sea level, 4)
that what was needed was to REDUCE atmospheric CO2 by AT LEAST one
third BELOW today's levels, and 5) that the technologies to do so
were proven and in hand, but were not being funded or even discussed.
These technologies will be covered in detail in a book I am editing
on Underutilized Technologies for Sustainable Development and
Reversing Global Warming, which will be published in May 2008 at the
United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.

There is precious little time now left to act, thanks to decades of
denial and obfuscation by governments and by many coral reef
professionals, long after the heat shock cause of mass coral reef
bleaching was thoroughly established by 1990. What Bali gave us is
another two wasted years of talking while temperatures continue to
rise without control, and corals and people die from extreme
temperature events. That is why further delay is a capital crime
against the environment. We must ensure that what climate treaties
emerge two years from now deal with the real problems, not avoiding
them, and promote the real solutions, not fake ones. While this may
seem merely academic to those from rich countries, it is a matter of
life and death for the island nations, especially the low lying ones,
and for coral reefs.

For more information on the problems and the solutions, please see:

1) The first New York Times comment on the aftermath of Bali

Voices on Bali, and Beyond - Dot Earth - Climate Change and Sustainability - New York Times Blog

2) The briefing to island nation delegations Warming Coral Reefs and%

The latter link may not work in all browsers. If clicking it says
that the page can't be found, just copy and paste it into your
browser window and it should work.

Best wishes,

Thomas J. Goreau, PhD
Global Coral Reef Alliance
37 Pleasant Street, Cambridge MA 02139
The Global Coral Reef Alliance GCRA
6 May 2007
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Scary wake up call. Just a pity that its gonna become another I told you so story.
Thanks for the link Rob.
28 Dec 2007
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Way too little to late.

Bye bye Corals. :(

And we have known this for 20-30 years.

Thanks Ronny, Bill, George I, George II
8 May 2007
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Thanks Rob. Great read.
The wake up call is still not loud enough. This year the Arctic thaw exceeded even the most extreme weather models. They are now reported as being decades out. Reports were then released claiming that this rapid loss in ice was due to an isolated rare warm water upwelling.
We seem to be having a lot of these rare extreme events
28 Dec 2007
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Yeah, but what can we do when the Yanks (Earth's biggest contributor of CO2 to the atmosphere) are the guys screwing it up and they still believe global warming is a myth :(
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