New research predicts the future of coral reefs


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Extensive stand of severely bleached coral at Lisianski Island in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (NOAA)

 Jake Slobe | January 18, 2017

New climate model projections of the world’s coral reefs reveal which reefs will be hit by annual coral bleaching first.

These projections, based on global climate models, predict when and where annual coral bleaching will occur. The projections show that reefs in Taiwan and around the Turks and Caicos archipelago will be among the world’s first reefs to experience annual bleaching. Other reefs, like those off the coast of Bahrain, in Chile and in French Polynesia, will be hit decades later, according to research recently published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, said about the study:

“These predictions are a treasure trove for those who are fighting to protect one of the world’s most magnificent and important ecosystems from the ravages of climate change. They allow conservationists and governments to prioritize the protection of reefs that may still have time to acclimatize to our warming seas. The projections show us where we still have time to act before it’s too late.”

The dangerous effects of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef have long worried scientists. In April of last year, a team of researchers reported that coral bleaching of the reef in 2016 was the worst that had ever been observed.

If current trends continue, according to the study, 99 percent of all reefs on Earth will experience severe bleaching every year within the next 100 years.

The new study shows that, on average, the world’s reefs will start suffering annual bleaching in 2043. About 5 percent of them will be hit a decade or earlier, while about 11 percent will suffer annual bleaching a decade or later than this date.

If emission reductions meet pledges made by countries under the Paris Agreement, coral reefs would have another 11 years, on average, to adapt to warming seas before they are hit by annual bleaching. If such emissions reductions become reality, many high and low latitude reefs in Australia, the south Pacific, India, Coral Triangle and the Florida Reef Tract will have at least 25 more years before annual bleaching occurs, buying time for conservation efforts. However, reefs near the equator will experience annual bleaching much sooner, even if emissions reductions pledges become reality.

Predicting when and where annual bleaching occurs will help policymakers and conservationists decide which reefs to prioritize. Study leader Dr. Ruben van Hooidonk of NOAA and the University of Miami said:

“Reefs that will suffer annual bleaching later – known as climate “refugia” – are top priorities because they have more time to respond positively to efforts that seek to reduce bleaching vulnerability.”

Some of these efforts include reducing land-based pollution, halting overfishing, and preventing damage from tourism.

Coral reefs, which are already under threat from overfishing and tourism, are especially vulnerable to climate change because they are easily affected by warm water. When sea temperatures rise, the algae that give coral its bright colors leave their host.. The loss of algae, which provide coral with much of its energy, make corals vulnerable to starvation and disease.

Known as the world’s underwater cities, coral reefs provide hundreds of millions of people with food, income and coastal protection. They are home to at least one-quarter of all marine life and they generate an estimated $375 billion per year from fisheries, tourism, and coastal protection.

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