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Helping coral reefs survive climate change

While the high ocean surface temperatures during the 1997-98 El Nino bleached coral reefs in more than 50 tropical countries worldwide, patches of coral did survive in or near the damaged reefs. A new study of these patches identifies factors likely to protect these threatened marine ecosystems during climate change.

"As baseline sea surface temperatures continue to rise, climate change may represent the single greatest threat to coral reefs worldwide," say Jordan West of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC, and Rodney Salm of The Nature Conservancy in Honolulu, Hawaii, in the August issue of Conservation Biology.

Coral reefs have among the greatest biodiversity of any ecosystem worldwide and provide key services to people, from food to coastal protection to tourism. Reef-building corals depend on symbiotic algae to photosynthesize much of their food, and surface waters that are warmer than normal can "bleach" corals by depleting their photosynthetic pigments or even make them expel their algae.

To help conserve coral reefs during climate change, West and Salm assessed factors that may have protected the coral patches that survived the 1997-98 bleaching. The factors fell into two categories: those that make corals resistant to climate change by, for instance, reducing local sea surface temperatures, and those that make reefs resilient to climate change by helping them recover from bleaching.

The researchers found that the factors that confer resistance to bleaching include local upwellings of cold water, and natural exposure to heat stress. For instance, in an area of Binh Thuan, Vietnam, upwelling of cold water brought surface temperatures down from 39 degrees C to 29 degrees C within days, and corals there recovered better than elsewhere in the country.

In addition, corals that emerge at low tides may be more tolerant of heat stress. For instance, in Palau's Rock Islands, the reef flats that emerge
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Contact: Jordan West
west.jordan@epa.gov
202-564-3384
Society for Conservation Biology
23-Jul-2003


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