Climate change causing coral reefs to shift away from equatorial to temperate regions

As climate change warms the ocean, subtropical environments are becoming more favourable for corals than the equatorial waters

The number of young corals on tropical reefs has declined by 85 per cent — and doubled on subtropical reefs — during the last four decades.

According to recent findings, coral reefs are retreating from equatorial waters and establishing new reefs in more temperate regions.

As climate change warms the ocean, subtropical environments are becoming more favourable for corals than the equatorial waters where they traditionally thrived.

This is allowing drifting coral larvae to settle and grow in new regions. These subtropical reefs could provide refuge for other species challenged by climate change and new opportunities to protect these fledgling ecosystems.

Climate change causing coral reefs to shift away from equatorial to temperate regions

Coral reefs off the Andaman coast. Image: Wikimedia Commons

"Climate change seems to be redistributing coral reefs, the same way it is shifting many other marine species," said Nichole Price, senior researcher of the study published in the Journal of Marine Ecology Progress Series

"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," Price added.

The researchers believe that only certain types of coral are able to reach these new locations, based on how far the microscopic larvae can swim and drift on currents before they run out of their limited fat stores.

The exact composition of most new reefs is currently unknown, due to the expense of collecting genetic and species diversity data.

According to the researchers, the results of this paper highlight the importance of truly long-term studies documenting the change in coral reef communities.

The trends that they identified in this analysis are exceptionally difficult to detect, yet of the greatest importance in understanding how reefs will change in the coming decades.

They also suggested that as the coral reef crisis deepens, the international community will need to intensify efforts to combine and synthesize results.

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