Recent reports about the health of the planet’s coral reefs have been grim. The most famous reef – the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Australia – experienced back-to-back mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, attributed to warming oceans. Some scientists have warned that in the worst case scenario, a majority of the reef could be lost by 2050.
But a new study from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin may have bought the reefs some time. Mikhail Matz, an associate professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at UT Austin, says coral that form the Great Barrier Reef are better-adapted to their environment than has been believed.
“If you take into account that every coral species living on the Great Barrier Reef actually lives, not in just one particular temperature, but populates the whole range of latitudes, which are different considerably in temperature, they are already genetically adapted to their local conditions,” Matz says.
Factoring in adaptability, and the coral’s mutations to deal with warmer temperatures, lengthens the expected time horizon for the reef to survive.
“Consider these preexisting mutations as your retirement savings,” Matz says. “It will run out. The corals are in the situation right now where they need to dig into retirement savings to buy their next meal.”
Matz says the message to be drawn from his findings is that there’s still time to act to deter climate change.
“What the research suggests is that there’s hope, but that there’s not much of it, unless we act right now,” Matz says.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.