Science of Adaptation

The Threat: Global climate change

The facts are clear. Our world is warming at an alarming pace. Ninety-seven percent of publishing climate scientists agree that global climate change is occurring as a result of human activity. Rising ocean temperatures cause coral bleaching, a process where stressed corals expel their symbiotic algae that provide their main food source and brilliant colors. Scientists have declared three global coral bleaching events: 1998, 2010 and 2014-2017. This most recent event was the longest and most widespread bleaching event ever recorded, killing as much as two-thirds of the corals in the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. In addition to bleaching, other global threats to corals are predicted to increase include: higher levels of ocean acidification caused from the oceans absorbing anthropogenic carbon dioxide; stronger tropical storms that intensify with rising ocean temperatures; and outbreaks of coral disease that typically follow bleaching events since stressed corals are more susceptible to infection.

Gaps in Scientific Knowledge

Climate change is one of the most challenging threats for conservationists to tackle due to the rapid pace and global scale of the changes. Many conservationists have raised concerns about whether corals will be able to adapt fast enough to survive into the future. There is currently no comprehensive scientific theory to describe how organisms like corals, distributed across broad geographic ranges, might adapt to rapidly changing environmental conditions. Similarly, there is no guidance for managers and conservationists promoting adaptation via natural selection.

Our Solution: Science of Adaptation

CORAL and our research partners at the University of Washington and Rutgers University are

  1. improving our scientific understanding of how organisms adapt to rapid change, including describing the relative contributions of ecological reorganization and evolutionary rescue to adaptation potential; and
  2. using this knowledge to identify conservation strategies that promote adaptation and account for uncertainty about future environmental conditions.

We are building a powerful mathematical model to simulate different future scenarios for coral reefs and help us answer questions like:

  • Does focusing on pristine reefs help corals survive climate change?
  • What happens to corals in the future if we protect a network of diverse reefs?
  • How large does the network have to be to ensure that it is resilient to a single disaster?

We are also leading an Adaptation Challenge project with a goal to unite some of the world’s most prominent coral experts to answer the question: What is the probability that reef-building corals can adapt to rising ocean temperatures by the year 2100?

As we investigate these scientific questions, we are simultaneously applying these concepts to real-world conservation. We are assessing existing management efforts in each of our four focal regions to understand who is doing what and where. By comparing our scientific outcomes with our management assessments, we will identify those areas where new investment of resources will have the biggest conservation impact. Our research has already revealed that protecting a diverse portfolio of reef types across large and connected regions will increase the probability that coral reefs can adapt to climate change. Based on this cutting-edge science, CORAL has launched an innovative conservation approach called Adaptive Reefscapes.

Science of Adaptation Pilot Locations:
Modeling Adaptation Potential (MAP) Partners*

*Principal Investigators (PIs) are bolded. With affiliations, researchers are listed in alphabetical order:

Rutgers University

  • Dan Forrest
  • Dr. Lisa McManus
  • Dr. Malin Pinsky

University of Washington

  • Dr. Tim Essington
  • Dr. Daniel Schindler
  • Dr. Tim Walsworth

University of Queensland

  • Dr. Pete Mumby

Stanford University

  • Dr. Steve Palumbi

The Nature Conservancy

  • Dr. F. Joseph Pollock
  • Dr. Luis Solorzano

Coral Adaptation Challenge Awardees*

*Principal Investigators (PIs) are bolded

Working group 1:

Emily S. Bellis, Oregon State University
Katherine E. Dziedzic, Oregon State University
Dr. Nathan L. Kirk, Oregon State University
Dr. Eli Meyer, Oregon State University

Working group 2:

Dr. Cheryl Logan, CSU Monterey Bay
Dr. Simon Donner, University of British Columbia
Dr. John Dunne, NOAA-GFDL

Working group 3:

Dr. Eric Treml, University of Melbourne
Dr. Maria Beger, University of Leeds
Dr. Mikhail Matz, University of Texas at Austin
Dean Blower, University of Queensland
Dr. Pete Mumby, University of Queensland
Dr. Cynthia Riginos, University of Queensland