Coral Reefs Subjected to Severe Destruction by Ocean Warming Over the Last Three to Four Decades, Study Finds

A range of considerable suggestions to safeguard, preserve and study the world’s coral reefs – called the “canaries in the coal mine” of climate change – has been reported by an international group of environmental scientists.

Coral Reefs Subjected to Severe Destruction by Ocean Warming in the Past Three to Four Decades, Study Finds.
Coral reefs have been severely impacted by ocean warming in the past three to four decades. Image Credit: Tom Vierus © WCS.

The Vibrant Oceans Initiative submitted its white paper on the future of the fragile and vital habitats at the Oceans Conference held in Palau on Thursday.

Drawing on expertise from universities and wildlife conservation groups from all over the world, including the University of Leicester, the group offers six main suggestions that should help encourage the “persistence and survival” of coral reefs.

Forecasts display that coral reef ecosystems throughout the globe, considered a primary source of maximum numbers of marine species and a source of food, livelihoods and cultural heritage for nearly half a billion people, may become functionally degraded by 2050 if the target of the Paris Agreement is not fulfilled.

Also, with considerable emission reductions to guarantee that global temperatures stay within 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, up to 90% of the world’s corals strength could still disappear in the coming 30 years. This leaves a reef structure behind that will lose several functions.

Jens Zinke is working as a professor in the Department of Palaeobiology at the University of Leicester. His study analyzes huge coral habitats to monitor climate and environmental change over the past three centuries and into the present day.

Coral reefs are the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ when it comes to sensing ecosystems under stress from ocean warming due to climate change. Corals can sense when ocean temperatures exceed a dangerous threshold and warn us when we need to take measures.

Jens Zinke, Professor, Palaeobiology, University of Leicester

Zinke added, “Our research has shown that coral reefs have been severely impacted by ocean warming in the past three to four decades, yet some reef locations show lower rates of warming or benefit from mitigating circumstances due to local oceanography.”

Some reefs have the ability to resist or recover from thermal stress faster than others, and these reefs may serve as sanctuaries under future warming. This is a major new research direction—to find those locations and protect them before they are gone,” continued Zinke.

In 2018, the Vibrant Oceans group determined nearly 50 reefs that are most probably to withstand and endure climate change. The habitats are situated greatly in the Pacific and Indian oceans, having additional reefs in the east of Africa and the Caribbean.

Earlier, around 50 reefs were selected primarily at sites that fled climate change. Currently, the researchers call for an extensive portfolio of reefs that must include fast-recovering and resistant reefs.

The new suggestions of the research group, presented in the white paper titled, “Forecasting Climate Sanctuaries for Securing the Future of Coral Reefs”, include:

  • Prolongation of the 50 Reefs approaches as “climate change avoidance sanctuaries” as precedence for investment in coral reef conservation.
  • Growth of the 50 Reefs conservation portfolio for climate change to comprise recovery sanctuaries and coral resistance.
  • Increase in the assistance provided for regional evaluations of the health of the 50 Reefs portfolio, and viable financing initiatives to help in the execution of regional portfolios.
  • Catalyzing large-scale and data-driven coral reef monitoring measures to test and come up with new models and anticipations of climate sanctuaries.
  • Making use of the new climate coral reef science to guide investments, particularly as the effects of climate change expedite and produce novel environmental stresses and reactions among reefs.
  • Embracing a far-reaching method to the management of 50 Reefs sites, such as fisheries and water quality management, connections to broader seascapes, mitigation of other pressures (for instance, industrial development), so that efficient and equitable management involves measurable benefits for coastal communities and coral reefs.

For the initial Vibrant Oceans study, financial support was provided by Bloomberg Philanthropies, while continuing conservation work collaborators include Oceans 5, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, and Tiffany & Co. Foundation.

The conservation partners include the WCS, Rare, Blue Ventures, The Nature Conservancy, and Conservation Ecosystem Partnership Fund.

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