Large-scale marine sanctuaries could protect coral reefs from climate change

Earth’s oceans are home to some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, but warming temperatures are causing many marine animals, including corals, to die. A new study on managing the impacts of climate change on these organisms says that more international collaboration is needed to ensure the future of more than 6,000 coral species.

“Coral reefs are an important ecosystem on our planet,” says Andrea Grottoli, study co-author and a professor at earth science at Ohio State University. “Coral reefs are very important to humans because they provide protection to coastlines from erosion and storms, and they are important for certain services such as tourism and other parts of the economy.”

Studies published in journals Biology of Global Changeadvocates the use of meso-scale nature reserves, or areas that can stretch thousands of miles, often across national boundaries, to protect these marine environments.

“Global warming is the No. threat. 1 for coral reefs today,” said Grottoli. “So when we think about coral reef conservation, we can’t limit ourselves to arbitrary geographic boundaries.”

Providing “sustainable conservation” would be very beneficial for coral reefs, Grottoli said. But because conservation policies differ between governments and politicians, it can complicate environmental protection.

Although coral reefs occupy less than 0.1% of the surface area in Earth’s oceans, about 30% of all marine species are in some way related to them, Grottoli said. However, due to the pressure of rising sea temperatures, coral reefs around the world are experiencing higher rates of damage coral bleachingor visible part of the coral surface.

Under coral bleaching, the animal’s skeleton, after being obscured, became visible, and effectively turned the creature into a ghost-like pale white. While bleached corals don’t necessarily die, they can cause mass mortality. Researchers say mass bleaching events are an indicator of declining ecosystem health.

Many people are probably most familiar with coral through Great Barrier Reef, complex coral systems so large that the structure of life can seen from outer space. Located off the coast of Australia, more than 2 million tourists visit the region every year. The attraction generates an estimated annual economic value of about $36 billion.

However, despite being the most protected marine area in the world, the GBR has recently been hit by another one mass whitening eventfourth time in just six years.

While climate change is undoubtedly contributing to an increase in the frequency and intensity of these events, ocean warming is also changing the composition and architectural complexity of coral reefs. “Under this reality, the future of coral reefs may seem bleak,” the paper said.

But there is good news. Even as the world’s coral populations dwindle, the genetic diversity of coral species helps ensure that some corals may be able to adapt and recover. And while there is an urgent need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, this research also shows that in the meantime, we need to take a broad, transdisciplinary approach to creating local and large-scale marine sanctuaries.

Grottoli believes that most efforts to save coral reefs will occur through education.

“People who understand coral reefs, and who understand the value of coral reefs, will most likely do something to help protect them,” he said. “If you don’t know anything about corals, and you’ve never seen them, how can you have any empathy or feel any connection to those ecosystems?”

In his role as president International Coral Reef SocietyGrottoli and his colleagues even devised a series of actions that individuals can perform at home help scientists’ conservation efforts.

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

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