Sea-level rise (SLR) is predicted to elevate water depths above coral reefs and to increase coastal wave exposure as ecological degradation limits vertical reef growth, but projections lack data on interactions between local rates of reef growth and sea level rise. Here we calculate the vertical growth potential of more than 200 tropical western Atlantic and Indian Ocean reefs, and compare these against recent and projected rates of SLR under different Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) scenarios. Although many reefs retain accretion rates close to recent SLR trends, few will have the capacity to track SLR projections under RCP4.5 scenarios without sustained ecological recovery, and under RCP8.5 scenarios most reefs are predicted to experience mean water depth increases of more than 0.5 m by 2100. Coral cover strongly predicts reef capacity to track SLR, but threshold cover levels that will be necessary to prevent submergence are well above those observed on most reefs. Urgent action is thus needed to mitigate climate, sea-level and future ecological changes in order to limit the magnitude of future reef submergence.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Storlazzi, C. D., Elias, E. P. L. & Berkowitz, P. Many atolls may be uninhabitable within decades due to climate change. Sci. Rep. 5, 14546 (2015).
Kench, P. S., Ford, M. R. & Owen, S. D. Patterns of island change and persistence offer alternate adaptation pathways for atoll nations. Nat. Commun. 9, 605 (2018).
Beetham, E., Kench, P. S. & Popinet, S. Future reef growth can mitigate physical impacts of sea-level rise on Atoll Islands. Earths Future 5, 1002–1014 (2017).
Ferrario, F. et al. The effectiveness of coral reefs for coastal hazard risk reduction and adaptation. Nat. Commun. 5, 3794 (2014).
Baldock, T. E., Golshani, A., Callaghan, D. P., Saunders, M. I. & Mumby, P. J. Impact of sea-level rise and coral mortality on the wave dynamics and wave forces on barrier reefs. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 83, 155–164 (2014).
Baldock, T. E. et al. Impact of sea-level rise on cross-shore sediment transport on fetch-limited barrier reef island beaches under modal and cyclonic conditions. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 97, 188–198 (2015).
Quataert, E., Storlazzi, C., van Rooijen, A., Cheriton, O. & van Dongeren, A. The influence of coral reefs and climate change on wave-driven flooding of tropical coastlines. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 6407–6415 (2015).
van Woesik, R., Golbuu, Y. & Roff, G. Keep up or drown: adjustment of western Pacific coral reefs to sea-level rise in the 21st century. R. Soc. Open Sci. 2, 150181 (2015).
Bruno, J. F. & Selig, E. R. Regional decline of coral cover in the Indo-Pacific: timing, extent, and subregional comparisons. PLoS ONE 2, e711 (2007).
Gardner, T. A., Côté, I. M., Gill, J. A., Grant, A. & Watkinson, A. R. Long-term region-wide declines in Caribbean corals. Science 301, 958–960 (2003).
Perry, C. T. et al. Caribbean-wide decline in carbonate production threatens coral reef growth. Nat. Commun. 4, 1402 (2013).
Perry, C. T. et al. Remote coral reefs can sustain high growth potential and may match future sea-level trends. Sci. Rep. 5, 18289 (2015).
Kennedy, E. V. et al. Avoiding coral reef functional collapse requires local and global action. Curr. Biol. 23, 912–918 (2013).
Hughes, T. P. et al. Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals. Nature 543, 373–377 (2017).
Moss, R. H. et al. The next generation of scenarios for climate change research and assessment. Nature 463, 747–756 (2010).
Church, J. A. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (ed. Stocker, T. F. et al.) Ch. 13 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).
Storlazzi, C. D., Elias, E., Field, M. E. & Presto, M. K. Numerical modelling of the impact of sea-level rise on fringing coral reef hydrodynamics and sediment transport. Coral Reefs 30, 83–96 (2011).
Beetham, E., Kench, P., O’Callaghan, J. & Popinet, S. Wave transformation and shoreline water level on Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu. J. Geophys. Res. Oceans 121, 311–326 (2016).
Perry, C. T. et al. Regional-scale dominance of non-framework building corals on Caribbean reefs affects carbonate production and future reef growth. Glob. Change Biol. 21, 1153–1164 (2015).
Hoegh-Guldberg, O. Climate change, coral bleaching and the future of the world’s coral reefs. Mar. Freshw. Res. 50, 839–866 (1999).
van Hooidonk, R. et al. Local-scale projections of coral reef futures and implications of the Paris Agreement. Sci. Rep. 6, 39666 (2016).
Sheppard, C. et al. Bleaching and mortality in the Chagos Archipelago. Atoll Res. Bull. 613, 1–26 (2017).
Vecsei, A. A new estimate of global reefal carbonate production including the fore-reefs. Glob. Planet. Change 43, 1–18 (2004).
Jackson, J. B. C., Donovan, M. K., Cramer, K. L. & Lam, V. V. (eds) Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970–2012 (Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, IUCN, Gland, 2014).
Perry, C. T. et al. Changing dynamics of Caribbean reef carbonate budgets: emergence of reef bioeroders as critical controls on present and future reef growth potential. Proc. R. Soc. B 281, 20142018 (2014).
Mumby, P. J. & Steneck, R. S. Coral reef management and conservation in light of rapidly evolving ecological paradigms. Trends Ecol. Evol. 23, 555–563 (2008).
Perry, C. T. & Morgan, K. M. Post-bleaching coral community change on southern Maldivian reefs: is there potential for rapid recovery? Coral Reefs 36, 1189–1194 (2017).
Graham, N. A., Jennings, S., MacNeil, M. A., Mouillot, D. & Wilson, S. K. Predicting climate-driven regime shifts versus rebound potential in coral reefs. Nature 518, 94–97 (2015).
Sheppard, C. R. C. et al. Reefs and islands of the Chagos Archipelago, Indian Ocean: why it is the world’s largest no-take marine protected area. Aquat. Conserv. 22, 232–261 (2012).
Pisapia, C. et al. Coral recovery in the central Maldives archipelago since the last major mass-bleaching, in 1998. Sci. Rep. 6, 34720 (2016).
Slangen, A. B. A. et al. Projecting twenty-first century regional sea-level changes. Clim. Change 124, 317–332 (2014).
Siegle, E. & Costa, M. B. Nearshore wave power increase on reef-shaped coasts due to sea-level rise. Earths Future 5, 1054–1065 (2017).
Carson, M. et al. Coastal sea level changes, observed and projected during the 20th and 21st century. Clim. Change 134, 269–281 (2016).
Wolff, N. H. et al. Global inequities between polluters and the polluted: climate change impacts on coral reefs. Glob. Change Biol. 21, 3982–3994 (2015).
Enochs, I. C. et al. Enhanced macroboring and depressed calcification drive net dissolution at high-CO2 coral reefs. Proc. R. Soc. B 283, 20161742 (2016).
Schönberg, C. H. L., Fang, J. K. H., Carreiro-Silva, M., Tribollet, A. & Wisshak, M. Bioerosion: the other ocean acidification problem. ICES J. Mar. Sci. 74, 895–925 (2017).
Perry, C. T. et al. Estimating rates of biologically driven coral reef framework production and erosion: a new census-based carbonate budget methodology and applications to the reefs of Bonaire. Coral Reefs 31, 853–868 (2012).
Januchowski-Hartley, F. A., Graham, N. A. J., Wilson, S. K., Jennings, S. & Perry, C. T. Drivers and predictions of coral reef carbonate budget trajectories. Proc. R. Soc. B 284, 20162533 (2017).
Steneck, R. S., Macintyre, I. G. & Reid, R. P. A unique algal ridge system in Exuma Cays, Bahamas. Coral Reefs 16, 29–37 (1997).
Gherardi, D. F. M. & Bosence, D. W. J. Late Holocene reef growth and relative sea-level changes in Atol das Rocas, equatorial south Atlantic. Coral Reefs 24, 264–272 (2005).
Murphy, G. N., Perry, C. T., Chin, P. & McCoy, C. New approaches to quantifying bioerosion by endolithic sponge populations: applications to the coral reefs of Grand Cayman. Coral Reefs 35, 1109–1121 (2016).
Smith, S. V. & Kinsey, D. W. Calcium carbonate production, coral reef growth, and sea level change. Science 194, 937–939 (1976).
Kinsey, D. W. & Hopley, D. The significance of coral reefs as global carbon sink—response to greenhouse. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 89, 363–377 (1991).
Hubbard, D. K., Miller, A. I. & Scaturo, D. Production and cycling of calcium carbonate in a shelf-edge reef system (St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands): applications to the nature of reef systems in the fossil record. J. Sedim. Petrol. 60, 335–360 (1990).
Blanchon, P. et al. Retrograde accretion of a Caribbean fringing reef controlled by hurricanes and sea-level rise. Front. Earth Sci. 5, 78 (2017).
Eyre, B. D., Andersson, A. J. & Cryonak, T. Benthic coral reef calcium carbonate dissolution in an acidifying ocean. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 969–976 (2014).
Dullo, W. C. Coral growth and reef growth: a brief review. Facies 51, 33–48 (2005).
Hubbard, D. K. Depth- and species-related patterns of Holocene reef accretion in the Caribbean and western Atlantic: a critical assessment of existing models. Int. Assoc. Sedimentol. Spec. Publ. 41, 1–18 (2009).
Yates, K. K., Zawada, D. G., Smiley, N. A. & Tiling-Range, G. Divergence of seafloor elevation and sea level rise in coral reef ecosystems. Biogeosciences 14, 1739–1772 (2017).
Bates, D., Mächler, M., Bolker, B. & Walker, S. Fitting linear mixed-effects models using lme4. J. Stat. Softw. 67, 1–48 (2015).
R Core Team. R: A language and Environment for Statistical Computing https://www.R-project.org/ (R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria, 2017).
Fox, J. & Weisberg, S. An R Companion to Applied Regression 2nd edn (Sage, Thousand Oaks, 2011).
Taylor, K., Stouffer, R. J. & Meehl, G. A. An overview of CMIP5 and the experiment design. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 93, 485–498 (2012).
Anderson, M. J. A new method for non-parametric multivariate analysis of variance. Austral Ecol. 26, 32–46 (2001).
Pinheiro, J. C. & Bates, D. M. Mixed-effects Models in S and S-plus (Springer-Verlag, New York, 2000).
Roff, G. & Mumby, P. J. Global disparity in the resilience of coral reefs. Trends Ecol. Evol. 27, 404–413 (2012).
We thank the many local institutions that supported and facilitated field data collection. Data collection in the tropical western Atlantic was supported through a Leverhulme Trust International Research Network grant (F/00426/G) to C.T.P. and data collection carried out specifically in Mexico was supported through a Royal Society - Newton Advanced Research Fellowship (NA-150360) to L.A.-F. and C.T.P., in Florida and Puerto Rico as part of the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program through NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program and Ocean Acidification Program to D.P.M. and in the eastern Caribbean through a National Geographic Research Grant to R.S.S. Data collection in the Indian Ocean was supported in Kenya and Mozambique through a NERC-ESPA-DFiD: Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation Programme Grant (NE/K01045X/1) to C.T.P., in the Maldives through a NERC Grant (NE/K003143/1) and a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship (RF-2015-152) to C.T.P., in the Chagos Archipelago through a DEFRA Darwin Initiative grant (19-027), in the Seychelles through an Australian Research Council grant (DE130101705) and Royal Society grant (RS-UF140691) to N.A.J.G. and in Ningaloo through the BHP-CSIRO Ningaloo Outlook Marine Research Partnership. P.J.M. acknowledges the Australian Research Council and World Bank/GEF CCRES project for funding. Rebecca Fisher (Australian Institute of Marine Science, Western Australia) provided statistical advice.
Nature thanks I. D. Haigh and I. Kuffner for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Extended data figures and tables
Plots showing mean site level coral carbonate production rate (a) and bioerosion rate (b) data (kg CaCO3 m−2 yr−1) grouped by country or territory within ecoregions for TWA and Indian Ocean sites. Box plots depict the median (horizontal line), box height depicts first and third quartiles, whiskers represent the 95th percentile, and outliers outside the 95th percentile are shown as circles. Country/territory codes are as follows: (1) Florida (n = 36); (2) Puerto Rico (n = 6); (3) Grand Cayman (n = 26); (4) Belize (n = 36); (5) Mexico (n = 64); (6) St. Croix (n = 36); (7) St. Maarten (n = 11); (8) Anguilla (n = 10); (9) Barbuda (n = 20); (10) Antigua (n = 28); (11) St. Lucia and St. Vincent (n = 37); (12) Bequia (n = 12); (13) Mustique (n = 16); (14) Canouan and Tobago Cays (n = 20); (15) Union/PSV and Carriacou (n = 20); (16) Bonaire (n = 62); (17) Mozambique (n = 55); (18) Kenya (n = 29); (19) Seychelles (n = 144); (20) Maldives (n = 25); (21) Chagos (n = 111); (22) Ningaloo (n = 34). n indicates the number of transects per country or territory.
a–d, Calculated RAPmax rates (mm yr−1) before (a, c) and after (b, d) the 2016 bleaching event in the Seychelles and the Maldives. e, Plot shows changes in RAPmax rates at ‘recovered’ (n = 96) and ‘regime-shifted’ reefs37 (n = 72 pre-bleaching, n = 48 post-bleaching) in the Seychelles, and Maldives (n = 35 pre-bleaching, n = 25 post bleaching). Box plots depict the median (horizontal line), box height depicts first and third quartiles, whiskers represent the 95th percentile, and outliers outside the 95th percentile are shown as circles.
Supplementary Table 1 - Field data and accretion. The file contains location data for all sites along with transect level data on measured rates of carbonate production and bioerosion, and resultant reef accretion rates.
Supplementary Table 2 - Recent and projected SLR rates. File contains recent and projected rates of SLR for each study region.
Supplementary Table 3 - Accretion-SLR interactions and projected increases in water depths. File contains data on calculated differences between accretion rates and recent and projected rates of sea level rise under RCP4.5 and 8.5 sea-level rise scenarios.
About this article
Cite this article
Perry, C.T., Alvarez-Filip, L., Graham, N.A.J. et al. Loss of coral reef growth capacity to track future increases in sea level. Nature 558, 396–400 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0194-z
Scientific Reports (2021)
Nature Sustainability (2021)
Scientific Reports (2021)
Marine Biology (2021)
Increasing coral calcification in Orbicella faveolata and Pseudodiploria strigosa at Flower Garden Banks, Gulf of Mexico
Coral Reefs (2021)