Scientists have detected increases in coral populations in subtropical waters, which could help to offset some of the coral declines in warming waters around the equator. The new research was published in the peer-reviewed journal Marine Ecology Progress Series on July 4, 2019.
Warming waters around the equator are inducing coral bleaching events and die-offs. Unlike fish and crustaceans, which are mobile and able to relocate to cooler waters when living conditions deteriorate, adult corals are sessile organisms for which migration is not possible. Hence, they are particularly susceptible to heat stress induced by El Niño events and climate change.
Coral larvae, however, are mobile. After new larvae are produced through fertilization, they swim around in the ocean for days to weeks searching for a nice hard spot to land. Once settled, the larvae metamorphosize into sessile polyps and form new coral colonies and reefs. Scientists routinely assess the recruitment of new coral larvae by placing artificial tiles around the ocean bottom and counting the number of polyps that develop over time.
In this new research, scientists first compiled a long-term coral recruitment database from past studies conducted from 1974 to 2012. Then, they examined the trends in recruitment over time. The findings showed that new coral recruitment has declined by 85 percent in tropical waters (less than 20 degrees latitude), but surprisingly, a 78 percent increase in recruitment was observed in cooler, subtropical waters (greater than 20 degrees latitude). Places with increases in recruitment include Shikoku, Japan, and the Flower Garden Banks in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The increases in recruitment were observed on both sides of the equator, thus indicating that this is a global trend and not just a site specific one.
Climate change seems to be redistributing coral reefs, the same way it is shifting many other marine species. The clarity in this trend is stunning, but we don’t yet know whether the new reefs can support the incredible diversity of tropical systems.
The scientists think that the best places for new coral recruitment in a future, warmer world may be in narrow zones just above tropical waters. At more northerly or southerly latitudes, coral growth would likely be limited by the low winter light intensity among other factors. Hence, despite the good news, coral conservation in tropical waters remains a critical issue.
Price also emphasized that more follow-up research is necessary:
So many questions remain about which species are and are not making it to these new locations, and we don’t yet know the fate of these young corals over longer time frames. The changes we are seeing in coral reef ecosystems are mind-boggling, and we need to work hard to document how these systems work and learn what we can do to save them before it’s too late.
The new research was published by an international team of 19 scientists, with funding support from the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology.
Bottom line: New long-term data show that coral populations have declined by 85 percent in tropical waters over the past few decades, but risen by 78 percent in a narrow zone of cooler subtropical waters.
Deanna Conners is an Environmental Scientist who holds a Ph.D. in Toxicology and an M.S. in Environmental Studies. Her interest in toxicology stems from having grown up near the Love Canal Superfund Site in New York. Her current work is to provide high-quality scientific information to the public and decision-makers and to help build cross-disciplinary partnerships that help solve environmental problems. She writes about Earth science and nature conservation for EarthSky.