THE IMPORTANCE OF THE MARINE ENVIRONMENT
The oceans cover an estimated 70 percent of the Earth's surface,1 the most productive natural environment and home to 75 percent of all known species. This unique environment, which remains largely unexplored and hidden from the rest of the world, plays an important role in regulating global temperature and is a major producer of oxygen. Coral reefs, which occupy only 0.5% of the seafloor, are complex three-dimensional structures formed over centuries by the deposition of Cretaceous coral rock skeletons. Reefs are often called "rainforests of the sea," but this allegory underestimates the complex structure of coral reefs, where much more animal and plant life are found than in rainforests, where nutrients circulate through an intricate food web and where food is provided at all levels of the trophic chain.
Historically, the sea has served as an important transportation artery, a source of food, and a favorite vacation spot. Most major cities developed along the coast as commercial areas. The growth of these cities is evident today in the proportion of the world's population (about 80 percent) who live within 100 kilometers of the coast and it is the sea that provides their livelihood2 (about 3.5 billion people). Indeed, the survival of the world's poorest inhabitants depends on their close relationship with the sea. The economic importance of the sea is clearly evident in the ecosystem services provided through fisheries, tourism, coastal enhancement, and its role as a source of raw materials. Such dependence on the sea is now threatened by adverse environmental conditions caused by global climate change.
THE VISIBILITY OF CLIMATE CHANGE
The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change3 (IPCC, 2007) provides compelling evidence that global climate warming over the past century was largely the result of human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and conversion of land to agricultural use. Temperature records from as far back as 1850 show an average global temperature increase of 0.8 °C, while subsequent analysis suggests that warming has occurred every ten years since the 1970s. There has also been an increase in global levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), from an average of 280 parts per million (ppm) in the mid-19th century, the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, to about 388 ppm in the early 21st century. The global warming trend is expected to continue, as the IPCC estimates that in 2100 global temperatures will average 2.5-4.7 °C higher than pre-industrial levels.4
PROJECTED ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGES
In order to fully assess the effects of climate change on coral reefs and the marine environment, it is necessary to consider projected environmental changes and assess the ability of marine organisms to adapt to these changes5. Climate models indicate that we can expect sea surface temperatures to rise by 1-3 °C, while sea levels will rise by 0.18-0.79 meters. Regional weather regimes are likely to change and this will be manifested in the strength and frequency of heavy rainfall, especially cyclones. In addition, changes in ocean circulation regimes can be expected, and pH levels will decrease as a result of CO26 absorption.
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