Hope for World’s Warming Reefs

coral reefs
Globally, our coral reefs are under threat, but new research is providing hope. Credit: Michael Webster.

The fate of coral reefs under climate change could improve if management efforts take evolution and adaptation into account, according to an international study.

The University of Queensland’s Professor Peter Mumby was part of the pioneering Coral Reef Alliancestudy seeking ways to save the world’s reefs.

“Our research shows that by making smart decisions today, conservation managers can generate the conditions that can help corals adapt to rising temperatures,” Professor Mumby said.

“Climate change is decimating coral reefs, but our study offers tools that may be able to help these ecosystems.

“By facilitating evolution, conservation efforts can help corals adapt to rising temperatures.”

Internationally, some groups have advocated protecting reefs in the coolest waters, hoping that they’ll have longer to adapt, but the researchers found protecting diverse reef habitat types across a spectrum of ocean conditions was key to helping corals adapt to climate change.

“Some reefs are naturally warmer than others and it’s important to design protection so that corals can move freely between these areas as the ocean continues to warm,” Professor Mumby said.

“Fortunately, the science to inform this has been underway for a few years on the Great Barrier Reef.

“Together, a diversity of reef types act as stepping stones that give corals the best chance for adapting and moving as climate changes.”

The researchers also found that improving local conditions for reefs – by effectively reducing local stressors such as overfishing and water pollution – was key.

But they found action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions remained fundamentally important.

The world’s coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, supporting the livelihoods of more than 500 million people and valued at over $530 billion.

 “It’s time to act now – we’re losing our reefs – but a diversity of coral types and reduced local stressors can make an enormous difference in ensuring their survival,” Professor Mumby said.

The study was a collaborative program launched by The Coral Reef Alliance’s Dr Madhavi Colton and Dr Michael Webster, co-authored at UQ and Stanford University, partnering with the University of Washington’s Dr Timothy Walsworth, Professor Daniel Schindler and Professor Tim Essington, and Associate Professor Malin Pinsky at Rutgers University.

The research was published in Nature Climate Change (DOI: 10.1038/s41558-019-0518-5) and funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.