News Stories

Coral May be Saved by Ocean Itself

We throw trash in it?no wonder it's not doing that well. Only about 4% of the world's oceans are not damaged by human activities such as fishing and pollution. Human-caused global warming has also taken a toll on coral reefs?but it turns out that they may get some NATURAL protection from the ocean.

An international team of scientists has built a world wide map of the ocean, showing the trouble spots. In BBC News, Helen Briggs quotes researcher Benjamin Halpern as saying, "In the past, many studies have shown the impact of individual activities, but here for the first time we have produced a global map of all of these different activities layered on top of each other so that we can get this big picture of the overall impact that humans are having rather than just single impacts."

Natural processes may prevent oceans from warming beyond a certain point, helping protect some coral reefs from the impacts of climate change. A new study provides evidence that an ocean "thermostat" appears to be helping to regulate sea-surface temperatures in a biologically diverse region of the western Pacific.

Researcher Joan Kleypas looked at the Western Pacific Warm Pool, a region northeast of Australia where naturally warm sea-surface temperatures have risen little in recent decades. As a result, the reefs in that region appear to have suffered relatively few episodes of coral bleaching, a phenomenon that has damaged reefs in other areas where temperature increases have been more pronounced. The destruction of coral is a major concern in Australia, since it will have a major effect on tourism in that country.

The study supports a much-debated theory that a natural ocean thermostat prevents sea-surface temperatures from exceeding about 88 degrees Fahrenheit in open oceans. If so, this thermostat would protect reefs that have evolved in naturally warm waters that will not warm much further, as opposed to reefs that live in slightly cooler waters that face more significant warming.

Kleypas says, "Global warming is damaging many corals, but it appears to be bypassing certain reefs that support some of the greatest diversity of life on the planet. In essence, reefs that are already in hot water may be more protected from warming than reefs that are not. This is some rare hopeful news for these important ecosystems."

Researcher Gokhan Danabasoglu says, "Computer models of Earth's climate show that sea-surface temperatures will rise substantially this century. Unfortunately, these future simulations show the Western Pacific Warm Pool warming at a similar rate as the surrounding areas instead of being constrained by a thermostat. We don't know if the models are simply not capturing the processes that cause the thermostat, or if global warming is happening so rapidly that it will overwhelm the thermostat."

In BBC News, Helen Briggs quotes researcher Mark Spalding as saying, "I think the big surprise from all of this was seeing what the complete coverage of human impacts was. There's nowhere really that escaped. It's quite a shocking map to see."

Art credit: freeimages.co.uk

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