Environmental Stressors Driving the Global Decline of Reef-Building Corals: Identifying Synergistic and Context-Specific Effects

EPA Grant Number: FP916353
Title: Environmental Stressors Driving the Global Decline of Reef-Building Corals: Identifying Synergistic and Context-Specific Effects
Investigators: Selig, Elizabeth R.
Institution: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
EPA Project Officer: Lee, Sonja
Project Period: January 1, 2004 through December 31, 2006
Project Amount: $99,016
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2004) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Aquatic Ecology and Ecosystems


This objective of this research project is to examine how environmental stressors affect metrics of coral reef health, such as coral disease and percent cover, at multiple spatial scales.


As anthropogenic activities continue to erode natural systems, it is increasingly important that research efforts be devoted to analyzing the patterns behind ecosystem decline so that impacts can be mitigated. Although we have a basic understanding of some of the effects of environmental stressors on coral physiology and mortality, most studies have been scale- and location-dependent and have not accounted for potential synergisms among stressors. It is likely that the relative importance of each factor will vary among geographic regions. For example, the stressors affecting reefs in Hawaii may differ substantially from those in Florida or the U.S. Virgin Islands, requiring different intervention strategies. I propose two distinct yet complimentary approaches to elucidate the context-specific and interactive effects of four anthropogenic disturbances on coral health: overfishing, sea surface temperature anomalies, sedimentation, and nutrient enrichment. The first approach will be a geographic information system (GIS) analysis that will integrate several global databases to create a spatial model of the four stressors and their effects on coral health. In the second, I will perform small-scale manipulations of three stressors—temperature, nutrient concentration, and sediment load—in mesocosms to determine their additive and interactive effects. Integrating these descriptive and experimental approaches will allow me to document spatial patterns of stressors and infer causality between stressors and coral condition across the wide geographic range of U.S. coral reefs.

Understanding the scale at which environmental stressors affect coral health and the spatial patterns of the stressors themselves will be crucial to designing management strategies for mitigating the effects of anthropogenic activities. This project will provide spatially detailed data on how different stressors are affecting coral reef health. This model then will enable government and local conservation managers to better understand the threats facing their coral reefs at local and regional scales.

Supplemental Keywords:

fellowship, coral reef, environmental stressors, temperature, nutrients, sediment load, overfishing, scale, nutrient enrichment, sedimentation, anthropogenic disturbances, spatial patterns, coral health,, RFA, Scientific Discipline, ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT, ECOSYSTEMS, Ecosystem Protection/Environmental Exposure & Risk, Aquatic Ecosystems & Estuarine Research, Ecosystem/Assessment/Indicators, Oceanography, Aquatic Ecosystem, Environmental Microbiology, Aquatic Ecosystems, Ecological Risk Assessment, Risk Assessment, anthropogenic stresses, monitoring, anthropogenic stress, nutrient dynamics, ecological exposure, coral reef ecosystem, adverse impacts, coral reefs, stressors, toxicity studies, natural stressors, GIS, coral reef communities, aquatic ecology, ecosystem stress, ocean temperature, anthropogenic pollutant effects

Relevant Websites:

2004 STAR Graduate Fellowship Conference Poster (PDF, 1p., 149KB, about PDF)

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2004
  • 2005
  • Final