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Losers and winners in coral reefs acclimatized to elevated carbon dioxide concentrations


Experiments have shown that ocean acidification due to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations has deleterious effects on the performance of many marine organisms1,2,3,4. However, few empirical or modelling studies have addressed the long-term consequences of ocean acidification for marine ecosystems5,6,7. Here we show that as pH declines from 8.1 to 7.8 (the change expected if atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations increase from 390 to 750 ppm, consistent with some scenarios for the end of this century) some organisms benefit, but many more lose out. We investigated coral reefs, seagrasses and sediments that are acclimatized to low pH at three cool and shallow volcanic carbon dioxide seeps in Papua New Guinea. At reduced pH, we observed reductions in coral diversity, recruitment and abundances of structurally complex framework builders, and shifts in competitive interactions between taxa. However, coral cover remained constant between pH 8.1 and 7.8, because massive Porites corals established dominance over structural corals, despite low rates of calcification. Reef development ceased below pH 7.7. Our empirical data from this unique field setting confirm model predictions that ocean acidification, together with temperature stress, will probably lead to severely reduced diversity, structural complexity and resilience of Indo-Pacific coral reefs within this century.

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Figure 1: Volcanic CO2 seeps of Milne Bay.
Figure 2: Response ratios (high pCO2/low pCO2, averaged across the three reefs), summarizing the observed biotic changes.
Figure 3: Progressive changes in reef biota along a pH gradient at Upa-Upasina Reef.
Figure 4: Mean rates of calcification of massive Porites at the Milne Bay seep sites and other Indo-Pacific regions as a function of mean annual sea surface temperature.

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Many thanks to L. Trott, E. Matson, F. Flores and P. Momigliano for processing samples. We thank J. Robin (National Research Institute, Port Moresby), A. Mungkaje and L. Mahatinaho (University of Papua New Guinea) and the Councillors of the Dobu RLLG for logistic support. The research was funded by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the University of Miami, and the Max-Planck Institute of Marine Microbiology through the Bioacid Project (03F0608C).

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All authors were involved with either fieldwork or data analyses. K.E.F. initiated and designed the study and wrote the manuscript, with contributions from all others. C.L. and R.O. analysed the seawater chemistry, C.H., S.N., K.E.F. and J.M.L. collected and analysed the Porites data, C.L. the in situ coral growth data, K.E.F. and S.N. the reef community data, S.U. the sediments and foraminifera, N.M. and S.U. the seagrass and epibiont data, and G.D. and K.E.F. conducted the statistical analyses.

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Correspondence to Katharina E. Fabricius.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Fabricius, K., Langdon, C., Uthicke, S. et al. Losers and winners in coral reefs acclimatized to elevated carbon dioxide concentrations. Nature Clim Change 1, 165–169 (2011).

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