UW News

July 1, 2019

Study shows that management and evolution give hope to coral reefs facing the effects of climate change

coral reef

A healthy reef in Indonesia teems with life.Michael Webster/Coral Reef Alliance

A new study released July 1 in Nature Climate Change gives hope for coral reefs.

Launched by the nonprofit Coral Reef Alliance, with lead and senior authors at the University of Washington, the study is one of the first to demonstrate that management that takes evolution and adaptation into account can help rescue coral reefs from the effects of climate change.

Importantly, the results show that by making smart decisions to protect reefs today, conservation managers can generate the conditions that can help corals adapt to rising temperatures.

coral bleaching

A diver explores a coral reef that has experienced bleaching.The Ocean Agency

“It is well documented that climate change is causing corals to die off at an unprecedented rate, but our study provides tools that offer promise for their survival,” said Madhavi Colton, co-author and program director at the Coral Reef Alliance. “Our results show that when evolution is enabled, conservation efforts can help corals adapt to rising temperatures.”

Contrary to approaches that are popular today, such as focusing protection on reefs in cooler water, the study shows that protecting diverse reef habitat types across a spectrum of ocean conditions is key to helping corals adapt to climate change.

“We found that a diversity of reef types provides the variety that evolution depends on,” said co-author Malin Pinsky, associate professor at Rutgers University. “Hot sites are important sources of heat-tolerant corals, while cold sites and those in between can become important future habitats. Together, a diversity of reef types act as stepping stones that give corals the best chance for adapting and moving as climate changes.”

green sea turtle

A green sea turtle passes through a cleaning station in Hawaii, where a Coral Reef Alliance initiative is working with local partners to improve water quality throughout the state.Michael Webster/Coral Reef Alliance

Key to successful evolution is management that improves local conditions for reefs by effectively reducing local stressors, such as overfishing and water pollution. However, the authors caution that not all management strategies are created equal.

“We used mathematical models to test the effects of management choices on coral reef outlooks,” said lead author Tim Walsworth, a postdoctoral researcher at the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. “We found that corals in well-managed areas act as a source of baby corals in the future, essentially rescuing reefs after the climate stabilizes. Without both evolution and management, the corals in our model were unable to survive rising temperatures.”

Coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet and support the livelihoods of over 500 million people. Globally, they are estimated to be worth $375 billion per year. The study shows that managing reefs to facilitate evolution today and in the future can enhance their prospects for long-term survival. This means creating managed area networks that contain a diversity of coral types and habitats and effectively reduce local stressors.

coral reef

A coral reef in Roatan, Honduras, is reflected in the surface of the water above.Michael Webster/Coral Reef Alliance

“This study shows that we know enough of the science to act — and with the effects of climate change only increasing, we have little time to waste,” Colton said.

The study is the result of a collaborative research program launched by Colton and Michael Webster of the Coral Reef Alliance. Other co-authors and project collaborators are Daniel Schindler and Tim Essington, both UW professors of aquatic and fishery sciences; Steve Palumbi of Stanford University; and Pete Mumby of University of Queensland.

The research was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

This story was adapted from a Coral Reef Alliance news release.


For more information, contact lead author Tim Walsworth at tewals@uw.edu; or co-authors Daniel Schindler at deschind@uw.edu and Tim Essington at essing@uw.edu.

Contact Yasmeen Smalley-Norman at Coral Reef Alliance for interviews with researchers at the nonprofit: ysmalleynorman@coral.org or 713-249-5084.

Photos and videos are available to download on the Coral Reef Alliance’s website.