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Study shows that management and evolution give hope to coral reefs facing the effects of climate change

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Posted July 3, 2019

A new study released in Nature Climate Change gives hope for coral reefs.

Launched by the nonprofit Coral Reef Alliance, with lead and senior authors at the University of Washington, the study is one of the first to demonstrate that management that takes evolution and adaptation into account can help rescue coral reefs from the effects of climate change.

A healthy reef in Indonesia teems with life. Image credit: Michael Webster/Coral Reef Alliance

Importantly, the results show that by making smart decisions to protect reefs today, conservation managers can generate the conditions that can help corals adapt to rising temperatures.

“It is well documented that climate change is causing corals to die off at an unprecedented rate, but our study provides tools that offer promise for their survival,” said Madhavi Colton, co-author and program director at the Coral Reef Alliance. “Our results show that when evolution is enabled, conservation efforts can help corals adapt to rising temperatures.”

Contrary to approaches that are popular today, such as focusing protection on reefs in cooler water, the study shows that protecting diverse reef habitat types across a spectrum of ocean conditions is key to helping corals adapt to climate change.

A diver explores a coral reef that has experienced bleaching. Image credit: The Ocean Agency

“We found that a diversity of reef types provides the variety that evolution depends on,” said co-author Malin Pinsky, associate professor at Rutgers University. “Hot sites are important sources of heat-tolerant corals, while cold sites and those in between can become important future habitats. Together, a diversity of reef types act as stepping stones that give corals the best chance for adapting and moving as climate changes.”

Key to successful evolution is management that improves local conditions for reefs by effectively reducing local stressors, such as overfishing and water pollution. However, the authors caution that not all management strategies are created equal.

“We used mathematical models to test the effects of management choices on coral reef outlooks,” said lead author Tim Walsworth, a postdoctoral researcher at the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. “We found that corals in well-managed areas act as a source of baby corals in the future, essentially rescuing reefs after the climate stabilizes. Without both evolution and management, the corals in our model were unable to survive rising temperatures.”

A green sea turtle passes through a cleaning station in Hawaii, where a Coral Reef Alliance initiative is working with local partners to improve water quality throughout the state. Image credit: Michael Webster/Coral Reef Alliance

Coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet and support the livelihoods of over 500 million people. Globally, they are estimated to be worth $375 billion per year. The study shows that managing reefs to facilitate evolution today and in the future can enhance their prospects for long-term survival. This means creating managed area networks that contain a diversity of coral types and habitats and effectively reduce local stressors.“This study shows that we know enough of the science to act — and with the effects of climate change only increasing, we have little time to waste,” Colton said.

Source: University of Washington

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