A team of scientists have discovered that a large area in the Indo-Pacific known as the “Coral Triangle” is surprisingly resistant to thermal stress from climate change, making it a sanctuary for corals amid the ongoing climate crisis. The findings, published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, are a glimmer of hope amid an otherwise dismal outlook for the world’s coral reefs which are declining globally as ocean waters rapidly warm.
The study, conducted by researchers from 19 tropical research institutions, looked at 226 reefs in 12 countries during 2016, one of the Earth’s warmest years on record. They found that coral sensitivity to heat was highly variable across different marine regions, and that climate-warming models overestimated coral destruction in the biodiversity-rich Coral Triangle. The region contains 75 percent of the world’s coral species and ocean biodiversity and its waters extend throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste.
Marine conservationists, local communities, and governments are deeply concerned about the fate of the world’s corals and the many species that may be lost due to global warming induced bleaching. Finding and protecting potential ocean sanctuaries, regions where environmental conditions provide a buffer against heat waves, is considered among the highest priorities to safeguard marine ecosystems. Until now, such sanctuaries have been difficult to pinpoint.
The research was led by WCS Senior Conservation Scientist Dr. Tim McClanahan who coordinated with a number of marine scientists across tropical countries to share a common method for evaluating thermal stress to corals. This collaborative effort has resulted in one of the world’s first big-picture views of coral sensitivity, revealing wider variations in bleaching patterns than had been previously understood or predicted by climate models.
Said Dr. McClanahan: “This is the first truly hopeful news for some coral reefs in a long time, and these findings suggest many published predictions for corals were overly pessimistic. It gives us a much better insight into where to focus our conservation efforts. The Coral Triangle is a great place to start. WCS is fortunate to have built a global conservation program that covers a large number of these climate resilient reefs. Even in areas where we find reefs suffering with low heat resistance, there are still smaller sanctuaries that can survive if people can reduce other reef threats, such as overfishing and pollution.”