Corals can adapt to climate change but only if emissions are reduced, study suggests

Deep-water corals carry genetic variants that could help them adapt to global warming but only if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, a new study suggests.

Based on their previous work which identified genes that make some individual corals more heat tolerant than others, researchers in the US ran computer simulations based on projections by the UN Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) – a body tasked with providing an objective, scientific view of climate change and its political and economic impacts.

They believe coral could survive under the mild and moderate scenarios, where warming does not exceed 1.8C to 2C by 2100.

But in more severe scenarios, where temperatures are around the higher end of the spectrum at 3.7C, simulations showed adaptation was not fast enough to prevent extinction.

Study leader Rachael Bay, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Davis, said: “These corals aren’t going to adapt at an unlimited rate.

(Rachael Bay/UC Davis)

“Keeping these reefs around requires curbing emissions.”

This research focused specifically on tabletop corals in the Cook Islands and scientists say further study is needed to understand the broader implications for other coral species.

Study co-author Steve Palumbi, from Stanford University, said: “Many existing coral populations have a bank of adaptations that has been evolving for a long time.

“Those existing adaptations are an asset for them to survive longer and for us humans to benefit longer.”

(Rachael Bay/UC Davis)

In the last few years, coral reefs have experienced the worst bleaching and mortality events in recorded history, with a rise in ocean temperatures to blame.

Dr Bay said: “This sort of framework could be used for any population we want to help adapt to future climate change, whether it’s corals or birds or insects.

“It’s a way to integrate the genomic data to produce tangible, predictive outcomes.”

The research is published in the journal Science Advances.


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