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Interdependency of tropical marine ecosystems in response to climate change


Ecosystems are linked within landscapes by the physical and biological processes they mediate. In such connected landscapes, the response of one ecosystem to climate change could have profound consequences for neighbouring systems. Here, we report the first quantitative predictions of interdependencies between ecosystems in response to climate change. In shallow tropical marine ecosystems, coral reefs shelter lagoons from incoming waves, allowing seagrass meadows to thrive. Deepening water over coral reefs from sea-level rise results in larger, more energetic waves traversing the reef into the lagoon1,2, potentially generating hostile conditions for seagrass. However, growth of coral reef such that the relative water depth is maintained could mitigate negative effects of sea-level rise on seagrass. Parameterizing physical and biological models for Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia, we find negative effects of sea-level rise on seagrass before the middle of this century given reasonable rates of reef growth. Rates of vertical carbonate accretion typical of modern reef flats (up to 3 mm yr−1) will probably be insufficient to maintain suitable conditions for reef lagoon seagrass under moderate to high greenhouse gas emissions scenarios by 2100. Accounting for interdependencies in ecosystem responses to climate change is challenging, but failure to do so results in inaccurate predictions of habitat extent in the future.

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Figure 1: Seagrass and coral reef ecosystems are connected within landscapes by the physical and biological processes they mediate; in such connected landscapes, the response of one ecosystem to climate change could have profound consequences for neighbouring systems.
Figure 2: Input data used to examine the effect of sea-level rise and coral reef growth on the distribution of seagrass at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia.
Figure 3: Results of model simulations examining the response of seagrass to altered wave conditions resulting from sea-level rise and no coral reef growth at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia.
Figure 4: The relative (%) area of seagrass-suitable habitat available along a transect spanning coral reef and seagrass ecosystems at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia.
Figure 5: Relative (%) area of seagrass-suitable habitat in years 2030, 2050, 2080 and 2100, compared with present day, based on changes to the wave environment resulting from a range of sea-level rise and coral reef accretion scenarios (null accretion in seagrass).


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The authors are grateful for funding from ARC SuperScience grant #FS100100024, University of Queensland Early Career and New Staff research grants to M.I.S. and J.X.L., Lizard Island Research Station Fellowship grant to S.H., and University of Wollongong URC grant to S.H. The authors thank members of the Australia Sea Level Rise Partnership for helpful discussions, S. Atkinson, A. Harborne, E.V.S. Menck, V. Harwood and R. Canto for assistance in the field and laboratory, and A. Hoggett, L. Vail and staff of Lizard Island Research Station for guidance on field sampling.

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M.I.S., P.J.M., S.R.P., J.X.L., O.H-G. and C.E.L. designed the study. M.I.S., C.M.R., J.X.L., C.J.B., S.H., D.P.C., T.B. and C.D.W. conducted the field work. M.I.S., J.X.L., C.M.R. and S.H. provided input data. M.I.S., D.P.C., A.G., T.B. and C.J.B. developed and ran the models. M.I.S. wrote the manuscript with input from all co-authors.

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Correspondence to Megan I. Saunders.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Saunders, M., Leon, J., Callaghan, D. et al. Interdependency of tropical marine ecosystems in response to climate change. Nature Clim Change 4, 724–729 (2014).

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