Corals are also climate “refugees”


Dead coral as a result of bleaching in off Lizard Island in the Great Barrier Reef in 2016. Photo: The Ocean Agency/XL Catlin Seaview Survey

In recent years warming ocean temperatures caused by climate change have been devastating coral reefs around the world. In places like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (one of the Earth’s largest living structures), warming events in 2016 and 2017 killed half of all coral in this magnificent ecosystem. There’s still a lot that scientists don’t know about coral resiliency and adaptation but research has shown that some coral may be able to “outrun” warming waters. As Scientific American explained, a team of researchers studying fossils in Daya Bay, just northeast of Hong Kong in the South China Sea found that during periods of warming in the distant past, coral reefs migrated away from equatorial warm waters to the bay’s more hospitable subtropical latitudes.

The discovery that coral can seek refuge in cooler waters isn’t new but using the fossil record can help scientists better pinpoint regions where migration has previously occurred and perhaps offer some insight into how some coral may respond to this period of human-caused warming. Corals are incredibly complex and diverse organisms and even within a single region, different species of corals can have drastically different adaptation abilities.

Why This Matters: As the IUCN explained, coral reefs harbor the highest biodiversity of any ecosystem globally and directly support over 500 million people worldwide, mostly in poor countries. Losing coral would be an unimaginable loss and would have ramifications that we’re probably not yet aware of. Evidence suggests that we may lose 90% of coral by 2050 and this underscores not just the need for us to take drastic action to slow climate change but to also invest resources into studying how humans can help corals better adapt to a warming planet.

Go Deeper: Read more about the debate scientists are having amongst themselves if sunscreens containing oxybenzone should be banned as the chemical has been known to damage coral.

Up Next

One Cool Thing: Environmental DNA

One Cool Thing: Environmental DNA

UNESCO has launched a new program to collect, analyze, and monitor environmental DNA (AKA eDNA) to better understand biodiversity at its marine World Heritage sites. Scientists will collect genetic material from fish cells, mucus, and waste across multiple locations along with eDNA from soil, water, and air.   The two-year project will help experts assess […]

Continue Reading 136 words
One Cool Thing: Otters Stoke Seagrass Romance

One Cool Thing: Otters Stoke Seagrass Romance

It’s about time we had a conversation about the birds and the bees…or in this case, the otters and the seagrass. A new study found that the ecological relationship between sea otters and the seagrass fields where they make their home is spurring the rapid reproduction of the plants. Otters dig up about 5% of […]

Continue Reading 149 words
“Ticking Time Bomb” Oil Tanker Threatens Food & Water Supply for Millions

“Ticking Time Bomb” Oil Tanker Threatens Food & Water Supply for Millions

By Amy Lupica, ODP Daily Editor An abandoned oil tanker off the coast of Yemen is deteriorating rapidly, and experts say that a hull breach could have far-reaching environmental impacts and threaten millions of people’s access to food and water supplies. The FSO SAFER tanker holds 1.1 million barrels of oil — more than four […]

Continue Reading 437 words

Want the planet in your inbox?

Subscribe to the email that top lawmakers, renowned scientists, and thousands of concerned citizens turn to each morning for the latest environmental news and analysis.