London, April 17
An international team of environmental scientists have warned that the world's coral reefs – the 'canaries in the coal mine' of climate change – may vanish in the coming 30 years.
Coral reefs are home to over a quarter of all ocean life. They are also a source of food, livelihoods, and cultural heritage for 500 million people, and protect coastlines and communities from storms and erosion.
Forecasts show that coral reef eco-systems around the globe are likely to become functionally degraded by 2050, if the goals of the Paris Agreement are not met.
Even with drastic emission reductions to ensure global warming is kept within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, up to 90 per cent of the world's corals could still vanish in the next three decades, leaving behind a reef structure that will lose many of its functions.
Drawing on expertise from universities and wildlife conservation groups from across the world, including the University of Leicester, the scientists published a series of significant recommendations to protect, conserve the world's coral reefs.
"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 Jens Zinke, Professor of Palaeobiology at Leicester.
"Our research has shown that coral reefs have been severely impacted by ocean warming in the past three to four decades, yet some reef locations show lower rates of warming or benefit from mitigating circumstances due to local oceanography.
"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," Zinke said.
The scientist published the latest recommendations in the white paper Forecasting Climate Sanctuaries for Securing the Future of Coral Reefs. These include expansion of the 50 Reefs conservation portfolio for climate change to include coral resistance and recovery sanctuaries.
They also called sustainable financing initiatives to support the implementation of regional portfolios; and catalysing large-scale, data-driven coral reef monitoring efforts to test and develop new models and predictions of climate sanctuaries.