Coral reefs will disappear in three decades without urgent intervention

Environmental scientists have published recommendations to protect coral reefs before they vanish, labelling the ecosystems as ‘canaries in the coal mine’ of climate change. 

The Vibrant Oceans Initiative has presented a white paper looking at the future of delicate and vulnerable marine habitats at the Our Oceans Conference, which took place on the Palau archipelago of islands in the southern Pacific Ocean last week. 

Experts from global academic institutions, including the University of Leicester, and wildlife conservation groups, contributed to the research, which paints a bleak picture for the survival of coral reefs, showing that they are highly likely to become functionally degraded by 2050 if the goals of the Paris Agreement are not met. 

Even a drastic reduction in emissions, keeping global warming within the target of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, could still result in up to 90% of the planet’s coral reefs disappearing completely within the next 30 years. This would mean a basic structure, void of many functions, would be the only evidence they ever existed, backing up previous research in this area.

‘Coral reefs are the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ when it comes to sensing ecosystems under stress from ocean warming due to climate change. Corals can sense when ocean temperatures exceed a dangerous threshold and warn us when we need to take measures,’ said white paper co-author Jens Zinke, Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Leicester. ‘Some reefs have the ability to resist or recover from thermal stress faster than others, and these reefs may serve as sanctuaries under future warming. This is a major new research direction – to find those locations and protect them before they are gone.’

Recommendations in the report include a continuation of the 50 Reefs approach as climate change avoidance sanctuaries and investment priorities for conservation efforts, with expansion to include coral resistance and recovery sanctuaries; more support for regional evaluations of the health of the 50 Reefs portfolio, with sustainable financing initiatives, large scale data-driven coral reef monitoring, science-guided investment policies, and connecting the 50 Reefs sites to broader seascapes, fisheries and water quality management also included. 

Image credit: Nico Smit


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