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How can we protect coral reefs from climate change?

How can we protect coral reefs from climate change? A team of experts has determined that the best way to protect corals from the damaging effects of climate change is to conserve a wide range of their habitats. This strategy could be applied to the conversation of many other species as well, both in the ocean and on land.

Study co-author Malin Pinsky is an associate professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

“Rather than conserving just the cold places with corals, we found that the best strategies will conserve a wide diversity of sites,” said Professor Pinsky. “Hot reefs are important sources of heat-tolerant corals, while cold sites and those in between are important future refuges and stepping stones for corals as the water heats up.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, coral reefs boost economies by billions of dollars a year from fishing, recreation and tourism, and other benefits. Worldwide, approximately 500 million people rely on coral reefs for food and income.

Corals are threatened by global warming, bleaching events, reef destruction, ocean acidification, and nutrient pollution. The study authors noted that while predictions about the future of corals are generally grim, there is growing recognition that they can adapt rapidly to a changing climate.

Professor Pinsky collaborated with scientists at the University of Washington, Utah State University, Coral Reef Alliance, Stanford University, and the University of Queensland to investigate how different conservation strategies may help coral reefs survive climate change. 

The researchers modeled a range of potential strategies, including efforts to protect sites where existing coral populations appeared to be “preadapted” to future conditions and efforts to conserve sites that will be suitable for corals in the future. The researchers determined that a strategy to conserve many different kinds of reefs would work best.

“Corals are facing a gauntlet over the coming years and decades from warming oceans, but we found that reef conservation in general can really boost corals’ ability to evolve and cope with these changes,” said Professor Pinsky. 

“There is strength in diversity, even when it comes to corals. We need to think not only about saving the cooler places, where corals can best survive in the future, but also the hot places that already have heat-resistant corals. It’s about protecting a diversity of habitats, which scientists hadn’t fully appreciated before.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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Image Credit: Michelle Stuart/Rutgers University-New Brunswick

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