Marine & Environmental Sciences Faculty Books and Book Chapters

Chapter 1: Population dynamics of the reef crisis: Consequences of the growing human population

Chapter Title

Chapter 1: Population dynamics of the reef crisis: Consequences of the growing human population

Book Title

Advances in Marine Biology: Population Dynamics of the Reef Crisis


Document Type

Book Chapter


Bernhard M. Riegl


An unequivocal link exists between human population density and environmental degradation, both in the near field (local impacts) and far field (impacts due to teleconnections). Human population is most widely predicted to reach 9–11 billion by 2100, when the demographic transition is expected in all but a handful of countries. Strongest population growth is in the tropics, where coral reefs face dense human population and concomitant heavy usage. In most countries, > 50% will be urbanized but growth of rural population and need for food in urban centres will not alleviate pressure on reef resources. Aquaculture will alleviate some fishing pressure, but still utilizes reef surface and is also destructive. Denser coastal populations and greater wealth will lead to reef degradation by coastal construction. Denser populations inland will lead to more runoff and siltation. Effects of human perturbations can be explored with metapopulation theory since they translate to increases in patch-mortality and decreases in patch-colonization (= regeneration). All such changes will result in a habitat with overall fewer settled patches, so fewer live reefs. If rescue effects are included, bifurcations in system dynamics will allow for many empty patches and, depending on system state relative to stable and unstable equilibria, a part-empty system may either trend towards stability at higher patch occupancy or extinction. Thus, unless the disturbance history is known, it may be difficult to assess the direction of system trajectory—making management difficult. If habitat is decreased by destruction, rescue effects become even more important as extinction-debt, accumulated by efficient competitors with weaker dispersal ability, is realized. Easily visible trends in human population dynamics combined with well-established and tested ecological theory give a clear, intuitive, yet quantifiable guide to the severity of survival challenges faced by coral reefs. Management challenges and required actions can be clearly shown and, contrary to frequent claims, no scientific ambiguity exists with regards to the serious threat posed to coral reefs by humankind's continued numerical increase.



Publication Date





Climate change, Coral reefs, Human population, Impact, Metapopulation


Marine Biology



Chapter 1: Population dynamics of the reef crisis: Consequences of the growing human population
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