Scientists have identified a portfolio of the world’s reefs most likely to survive the coming decades, using principles from the financial investment world.

University of Queensland researchers collaborated with 18 international experts, including from the Wildlife Conservation Society, to identify reefs that could be less vulnerable to climate change, yet are well positioned to help regenerate surrounding, less fortunate coral reefs.

Said Emily Darling, coral scientist from WCS: "The science is clear that conservation can buy time for some coral reefs to survive climate change. The next step is translating this into meaningful outcomes, and continuing to push for global action on carbon emissions."

Said Caleb McClennen, VP of WCS Conservation: "Given the dismal future recent research suggests coral reefs face due to global climate change, this study provides hope for a network of reefs that, if managed well, can survive. This science further demonstrates the importance of a diversified portfolio of locally appropriate actions to maximize conservation return for people and coral reefs." 

"The global impact from climate change continues to decimate the planet’s reefs on an unprecedented scale,” said Cristian Samper, President and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “These findings present evidence for optimism for people and reefs.  While the global climate stress is immense, it is not the same for all reefs. We need a portfolio of reefs that provide a far greater likelihood of survival through both short and longer-term climate shocks.  Having worked in coral reef conservation science and conservation for nearly a century, WCS is enthusiastic to incorporate these findings into our global conservation strategy, protecting habitat, improving water quality and promoting sustainable fisheries."

UQ Global Change Institute Director Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg said coral reefs had been, and would continue to be, differently impacted by climate change.

“The identification of reefs with the best opportunity to survive over coming decades may hold the key to the long-term survival and recovery of reefs everywhere,” Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said.

“Despite high levels of uncertainty, it may be possible to both identify and prioritise investment in these reefs, in a similar way asset managers deal with the investment risks associated with financial portfolios.”

UQ’s Dr Emma Kennedy said significant research had focused on the loss of corals, but the reefs most likely to survive could represent important conservation opportunities.

“These reefs urgently require protection from other non-climate change related stresses, such as overfishing, pollution, and land-based sedimentation,” Dr Kennedy said.

“We know that heat stress and storms are two of the major climate-related threats to reefs, and we used the latest global datasets to map which locations might have a better chance of surviving the coming decades.

“Of these reefs, it is those that are well placed to supply other reefs with larvae that could be crucially important to the survival of coral reefs in the future.”

Dr Hawthorne Beyer said accounting for uncertainty in predicted future conditions allowed the researchers to reduce the risk of widespread failure across the portfolio, with only a small impact on the expected benefits.

“Now we must assess the portfolio alongside field knowledge, local threats and political opportunity in these places,” Dr Beyer said.

“Where appropriate, we should strengthen existing conservation efforts and invest in new efforts in these regions.

“The past three years of exceptional heat stress has taken a heavy toll on the world's coral reefs.

“While this work provides a new approach and vision for prioritising conservation investments, existing coral reef conservation initiatives remain critical for providing benefits at more local scales.”

Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said it was imperative to achieve Paris Climate Agreement goals to have any chance of saving coral reefs.

“What many people don't realise is that coral reefs are still going to experience extremely challenging times, even if we do achieve international targets on greenhouse gas emission reductions of this crucial UN agreement.

“It will be essential for reef scientists and conservation specialists to reach out to people, governments and industries in these regions to better mitigate or manage ongoing local threats.

“We have already seen very significant interest in our framework and we are keen to develop partnerships to fulfill the vision of coral reefs regenerating this century.

“Hopefully, this global strategy will act as a rallying cry for us all to act and save these beautiful and important ecosystems.”

The research is published in Conservation Letters.


2018 has been designated by the International Coral Reef Initiative as the third International Year of the Reef. This is a great opportunity to come together to strengthen awareness on the plight of coral reefs, to step up and initiate conservation efforts.