If We Act Fast, Coral Reefs Could Adapt to Warming

Written by on October 30, 2013 in Coral Reefs, Marine Life

If there are dramatic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, coral reefs may be able to keep up with climate change, according to a new study.

Bleached coral.

Bleached coral. Photo credit: David Burdick, NOAA.

The study, Incorporating adaptive responses into future projections of coral bleaching, was conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s scientists and academic partners.

One of the biggest problems coral reefs face comes from warming oceans. Water temperatures only 1-2°C (2-4°F) above normal summertime temperatures can cause corals to bleach — they expel the algae living in their tissues that provide them with food, which most often results in death.

Based on predictions for bleaching rates in the future, the researchers found that there should have been more bleaching events in the past. This means that some corals have adapted to the warming that has already occurred over the last 50 years. This suggests that if some corals were able to adapt to warming in the past, they may be able to persist through the end of the century, but only if carbon dioxide emissions are greatly reduced.

The study explored a range of possible coral adaptive responses to heat stress that had already been identified by the scientific community and found that corals could reduce the projected rate of bleaching caused by warming waters by 20 to 80 percent of the levels expected by 2100.

The researchers emphasize that this will not be the case if CO2 emissions continue to increase and that not all coral species will react the same way. Some may not be able to adapt fast enough, so future coral reef communities will still be different.

Future studies will examine the rate and limit of different adaptive responses for coral species to determine which ones can adapt to warming waters in time.

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Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .

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