Are Coral Reefs Adapting to Warmer Oceans?

“Our results certainly show that corals bleached at a lower temperature in the past than they do now,” Dr. Robert Van Woesik said. “But I hesitate to say that the corals have adapted.”

Van Woesik is a professor at the Florida Institute of Technology. He received his Ph.D. in Australia working on the Great Barrier Reef and has been working on corals reefs for 35 years.

On March 20th, 2019, Van Woesik, Shannon Sully, Deron Burkepile, Mary Donovan and Gregor Hodgson published a study that some say suggests coral adaption to global warming.

In the study, Van Woesik and his colleagues analyzed Reef Check Data to investigate what has been going on with coral reefs over the last few decades. What they found was interesting.

Coral species differ in tolerance to thermal stress. Mild coral bleaching in Palau, 2010 ©️  Dr. Robert Van Woesik.

Their findings showed that:

  • Coral reefs near the equator were more resistant to coral bleaching.
  • Corals are bleaching at higher temperatures today than they were in the past.
  • Areas exposed to higher temperature variations are less likely to bleach than those that have minimal temperature variation.

Although these results may suggest that coral reefs are adapting, Van Woesik thinks that much more work needs to be done on a cellular and molecular level before a conclusion of coral adaption is made.

“Doing such a large-scale study, we don’t know a lot of the details at the level of, which ones adapted, and where they adapted,” Van Woesik said. “We still have to do all of that work.”

Van Woesik also thinks that focusing on coral adaptation is the wrong message to send.

“I haven’t seen anything more significant than coral bleaching on coral reefs, in all the places I’ve been to,” Van Woesik said. “It overrides everything else.”

Mild coral bleaching in Palau, 2010 ©️  Dr. Robert Van Woesik.

Van Woesik thinks the focus should be on conservation. What this study does give us are the locations where we should focus our conservation efforts.

“Places that are potentially climate change refuges,” Van Woesik said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

The Next Step

Deron Burkepile, one of the researchers on this study, studies coral bleaching on a smaller scale. He analyzes local pollution and nutrients and how they influence bleaching.

Van Woesik said that this will be the next step in their research.

“We’ve done this global snapshot,” Van Woesik said. Now their focus is on “the local conditions that can either help or be a detriment to corals and bleaching.”

Mild coral bleaching in Palau, 2010 ©️  Dr. Robert Van Woesik.


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