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Effects of Climate Change: One-Third of Coral Reefs ‘Beyond Recovery’

Coral reefs are still at risk from the effects of global warming despite having conservation zones designed to protect them, and at least one-third of the world’s coral reefs are now beyond recovery.

An international team of researchers, including scientists at Warwick University, have warned that urgent action is needed to prevent the total collapse of these fragile ecosystems.

Professor Charles Sheppard from the Department of Biological Sciences at Warwick took part in this research. He says: “Global warming has created a lot of marine life mortality. We had hoped that the protected areas might have survived climate change better than unprotected areas, but we found that there wasn’t a lot of difference in the effects of global warming between the sites which were protected from fishing and those that weren’t.

Protection Zones are ‘In the Wrong Places’

The existing protection zones were created over 30 years ago. However, according to Sheppard the location of these areas was more dependent on economic and political factors, and they were designed to protect fish rather than the supporting coral and other highly diverse reef structure.

Marine parks were often chosen based on pragmatic reasons, for example whether or not hotels or harbours could be built on a particular stretch of coast,” he says. “Also, most of these were chosen in the 1960s and 70s. We only realised the effects of climate change on coral reefs about 15 years ago.

The key to preserving endangered coral reefs lies in identifying areas that are resistant to the effects of climate change, however existing protection zones still remain crucial for protecting the coral reefs.

“Protected areas are still vital,” says Sheppard. “When you protect an area it produces more for tomorrow. You don’t have to manage it, you just let nature take its course.

However, we found that many areas were randomly affected by, or were resistant to climate change. So we now need to identify and protect the areas that are resilient and robust, and protect them based on their biology, not on short-term economic factors.

Destruction of the Coral Reefs will Affect Millions

Coral reefs will be the first ecosystems to be irreparably damaged by climate change, and the effects of this will be devastating and far reaching.

Reefs are amongst the richest habitats on the planet,” says Sheppard. “Hundreds of millions of people are dependent on reefs for their protein, added to which there is a population explosion. Many people will suffer malnutrition and be unable to support themselves. They will add to the social flight towards urban areas”

“They also serve as natural barriers against shoreline erosion, and they are a rich source of bioactive compounds that have been useful for medical and other research. There are plenty of reasons to keep them.

This international research team includes scientists from a wide range of organisations and universities, including Newcastle University, the University of East Anglia, and Warwick University.