Climate Change, Nature

Coral Reefs Can Adapt to Climate Change

Coral reef in Fiji
Some coral reefs have been able to adapt to climate change.
Image: Shutterstock

Coral reefs are reservoirs of biodiversity, kind of like underwater forests. They provide food and shelter for marine life, help shelter coastal areas from storms, and provide jobs and income for millions of people. The reefs themselves consist of the castoff exoskeletons of simple animals, the corals, which build up over time. Other animals, as well as algae and plants, make these reefs there home. In fact, almost one third of all ocean fish species live at least part of their lives around coral reefs.

Unfortunately, climate change is having a big effect on coral reefs. Warming water has bleached some reefs, while increased numbers of cyclones have damaged others. Changes in temperatures have led to outbreaks of coral eating animals like starfish, which are devastating some populations. In the first decade of the 21st century, many scientists forecast a very negative future for coral reefs. The result is a very real, observable decline in some coral species over the last 30 years or so.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Recent studies, like one conducted by the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), have shown that some coral reefs are recovering from recent damage. Coral species that are better suited to changing temperatures are beginning to grow faster and take over existing reefs. Before long, species like this will come to dominate existing coral reefs, and perhaps even build new reefs, although new reefs are rare.

New fossil evidence also helps support the adaptability of coral reefs, showing that coral diversity over time is greater than previously expected, and although they have been pretty unchanged for several millennia, coral reefs to change over time. It will be interesting to see what species come to dominate reefs, and how that changes the ecology of those reefs. Newly dominant species will undoubtedly have an impact on the creatures that live in and around coral reefs as well. Significant ecological change is likely on the horizon for coral reefs around the world, especially if climate change continues unabated, but at least there will still be reefs.

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