Despite the potential impact of ocean acidification on ecosystems such as coral reefs, surprisingly, there is very limited field data on the relationships between calcification and seawater carbonate chemistry. In this study, contemporaneous in situ datasets of seawater carbonate chemistry and calcification rates from the high-latitude coral reef of Bermuda over annual timescales provide a framework for investigating the present and future potential impact of rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels and ocean acidification on coral reef ecosystems in their natural environment. A strong correlation was found between the in situ rates of calcification for the major framework building coral species Diploria labyrinthiformis and the seasonal variability of [CO32−] and aragonite saturation state Ωaragonite, rather than other environmental factors such as light and temperature. These field observations provide sufficient data to hypothesize that there is a seasonal “Carbonate Chemistry Coral Reef Ecosystem Feedback” (CREF hypothesis) between the primary components of the reef ecosystem (i.e., scleractinian hard corals and macroalgae) and seawater carbonate chemistry. In early summer, strong net autotrophy from benthic components of the reef system enhance [CO32−] and Ωaragonite conditions, and rates of coral calcification due to the photosynthetic uptake of CO2. In late summer, rates of coral calcification are suppressed by release of CO2 from reef metabolism during a period of strong net heterotrophy. It is likely that this seasonal CREF mechanism is present in other tropical reefs although attenuated compared to high-latitude reefs such as Bermuda. Due to lower annual mean surface seawater [CO32−] and Ωaragonite in Bermuda compared to tropical regions, we anticipate that Bermuda corals will experience seasonal periods of zero net calcification within the next decade at [CO32−] and Ωaragonite thresholds of ∼ 184 μmoles kg−1 and 2.65. However, net autotrophy of the reef during winter and spring (as part of the CREF hypothesis) may delay the onset of zero NEC or decalcification going forward by enhancing [CO32−] and Ωaragonite. The Bermuda coral reef is one of the first responders to the negative impacts of ocean acidification, and we estimate that calcification rates for D. labyrinthiformis have declined by > 50% compared to pre-industrial times.

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