Marine Heatwave Impact on Corals Worse Than Previously Thought
New research suggests the effects of marine heatwaves on corals are worse than previously thought.
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The effects of marine heatwaves caused by climate change on corals and biodiversity are worse than previously thought, according to new University of Victoria research published on Friday that also provides important clues about broader coral diversity and marine ecosystem health as the world grapples with record ocean temperatures.
The research results come as news media have widely reported unprecedented temperatures in 2023 in places such as Florida. Marine heatwaves threaten cryptic coral diversity and erode associations amongst coevolving partners is written by Julia Baum, professor of ocean ecology and global change at UVic and postdoctoral fellow Samuel Starko, and colleagues from the US. The paper addresses the global effects of an earlier heatwave (the 2015-to-2016 El Niño) on coral.
Starko, a former UVic postdoctoral researcher with Baum’s lab and now at the University of Western Australia, says the study focused on the epicenter of Kiritimati, a coral atoll in the central equatorial Pacific Ocean. It found three genetic lineages among one species of lobed coral and determined they reacted differently to extreme heats.
- Samuel Starko, research fellow, University of Western Australia
Worldwide, coral reef ecosystems are worth approximately US$375 billion annually, and are a vital source of food and income for hundreds of millions of people in tropical island nations.
Starko says the study’s identification of different coral genotypes highlights the potential for increasing coral reef resilience to threats. “There has been an increasing push to use targeted genotypes to restore and future-proof marine ecosystems, including coral reefs,” he says. “If we can identify genotypes that are more resilient to heat stress then we can strategically outplant them to increase the overall resilience of reefs in the face of climate change.”
But Baum notes that alone isn’t enough to protect corals and ocean biodiversity, saying: “We need to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to curb planetary warming. The current warming in Florida underscores that the ocean is simply becoming too hot for corals, and we need to act now to mitigate climate change.”
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