Adapting to global change

Warming of our atmosphere and oceans is well documented and is predicted to continue to increase over the next century.

Higher ocean temperatures are predicted to increase coral bleaching and mortality, changes in community composition and reduced diversity of reef systems. Acidification of our oceans from increased atmospheric CO2 is also a widely acknowledged threat to marine ecosystems, especially coral reefs.

Our understanding of the long-term impacts of these two climate change – related threats is only rudimentary. There is an urgent need to carry out strategic research on how species, communities and ecosystems will be affected by higher temperatures and acidity, as well as on the capacity of key organisms to adapt to different future warming and acidification scenarios.

Achievements

World-class climate research on the ground and in our high-tech labs:

  • We have improved understanding of ocean acidification and coral reef health by studying a tropical coral reef ecosystems occurring near natural CO2 seeps in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea. The study revealed that the diversity of coral types in a reef reduced as the ocean’s acidification increased.
  • We have created a rich and compelling record of climate change impacts on reef health, reaching as far back as 1300 AD, by developing the world’s most comprehensive library of coral cores from long-lived Porites corals in the Great Barrier Reef.
  • We have used the world’s smartest aquarium, SeaSim, to support management of the Great Barrier Reef by studying the effects of pre-industrial, present and future levels of temperature and ocean acidification on two coral species
  • Genetically enhanced coral reef species may provide an answer to ocean acidification, thanks to our research on the stress tolerance of coral stocks used for reef restoration.

Future directions

Our key goals over the next five years include:

  • developing and testing predictive models of reef resilience related to global and local pressures on reef systems and based on observational datasets and process studies
  • expanding the range of autonomous and automated climate observation methods throughout tropical marine Australia
  • determining the vulnerability and adaptive capacity of key species and communities to changing climatic and ocean chemistry and then modelling how key ecosystems cope with combinations of global and local stresses.