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UAE's fragile reefs will be under more strain: climate change report

The UAE’s fragile natural habitat and animal life are likely to be put under more strain by climate change, leading to economic losses for the growing tourism sector.

The Emirates Wildlife Society and World Wildlife Fund report, UAE Climate Change Risks and Resilience, this week outlined concerns about the effect on coral reefs off the coast.

Some effects of climate change can be predicted through research, such as the effect of a changing marine environment. But many are as yet unknown, including global warming’s influence on certain species’ habits.

“Marine ecosystems and species of the Arabian Gulf already often function at the maximum limits of their environmental tolerance and further changes in climatic conditions are likely to affect them severely,” the report said.

Sabkhas, low-lying sand and salt flats, are also recognised as one of the largest carbon storage habitats of coastal systems.

“The UAE’s sabkhas are internationally recognised as the largest and most geomorphologically interesting examples in the world,” the report said.

“Coastal sabkhas can stand only a few centimetres above high-tide mark, and changes in precipitation and higher sea level could have negative consequences on their halophytic flora and fauna.

“Estimates indicate that with a continuation of current trends in GHG emissions, a significant proportion of the planet’s remaining coral reefs may be lost to bleaching over the next century.”

The Arabian Gulf is already one of the most heat-stressed and saline marine environments in the world due to desalination plants and decades of pollution.

Policies are in place to reverse some of the damage done by rapid urban modernisation, but the shift in sea temperature and increasing ocean acidity have already taken their toll on coral reef habitats and the almost Dh100 billion they bring in annually.

Coral bleaching in 2010 led to the loss of more than half of the acropora corals in Ras Ghanada, Abu Dhabi, a place famous for its reefs. This was important because that species of coral excretes a calcium skeleton, which is the basic building block for reefs.

The Environment Agency Abu Dhabi last month said it planned to increase the percentage of protected marine areas to 14 per cent by 2019, stating that it will benefit coral reefs and boost tourism in making the UAE a more popular diving destination.

It said that coral replenishment programmes were a feasible option for the Gulf to help coral populations that might be at risk.

Apart from the known link to the coral reefs, change in the region’s ocean conditions could have unpredictable effects on turtles.

A recent study by the Emirates Wildlife Society found turtles dive to cooler waters during the summer and that is likely to increase as water surface temperatures are set to rise by up to 2°C in the next 30 years.

On land, most species depend on a healthy and vibrant desert. But increases in temperature could lead to stress for species including the Arabian oryx, the spiny-tail lizard and migratory birds.

Extreme temperatures will also threaten the flora and fauna of mountainous regions, as the scarcity of plants could lead to species degradation and allow invasive species to flourish.

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The National