Research Shows the Importance of Hot Reefs

New results from our pioneering research show that protecting reefs that thrive in warmer waters may be key to helping evolution rescue reefs from the effects of climate change.

For the last several years, we’ve been leading research funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and other funders to understand how we can best help coral reefs adapt to climate change.

Research by others has already shown that corals have some capacity to adapt to the effects of climate change. But we wanted to know more about how the process of adaptation might unfold over centuries of global warming, so that we could turn that science into action today. What could we do to help this process along?

To answer these questions, we partnered with academic researchers to build simulations of reefs and we used them to test how different strategies for protecting coral reefs perform over time. Which strategies were the best at protecting reefs long term?

In our first paper published in Nature Climate Change in 2019, we reported the need to protect a diversity of coral reefs from local stressors—like overfishing and water pollution. Using our simulations, we’ve been exploring what “diversity” means using real-world data from the Caribbean, Southwest Pacific, and Coral Triangle regions. Our results show that thermal diversity is really important.

Our models show that networks of protected areas that include reefs in warmer waters tend to fare better over time. The best explanation is that these reefs contain corals that have already figured out how to thrive in warmer conditions. When these corals reproduce, they send their heat-adapted larvae (baby corals) to other reefs, helping areas across a region cope with rising temperatures.

There is one important caveat: these results are based on the assumption that we curb global carbon emissions. If we don’t reduce the amount of warming our planet experiences, even heat-adapted corals will struggle to survive.

Now that the research phase of this project is complete, we are turning our attention to translating these findings into action. These results can help us identify the areas that need to be better protected—because in some parts of the world, relatively few “hot” reefs are in marine protected areas. With these new results, we’re in a better position to encourage the establishment and improved management of protected area networks that will help coral reefs adapt to climate change.

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