Scientists have found that coral reefs in the Gulf of Aqaba and in the Northern Red Sea are displaying a particular resistance to the effects of global warming and ocean acidification. It is hoped that, provided they survive local pollution, they could be used to re-seed areas of the world where reefs are dying.
Around the world, global warming is wreaking havoc with coral reefs. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef survived last year with only a third of its ecosystem unbleached yet now enters into a second year of enormous coral bleaching. But when assessing Aqaba corals that had been exposed to six weeks of stressful conditions, researchers found no bleaching.
“[Under these conditions,] most corals around the world would probably bleach and have a high degree of mortality,” said Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) scientist Thomas Krueger.
“Most of the variables that we measured actually improved, suggesting that these corals are living under suboptimal temperatures right now and might be better prepared for future ocean warming.”
Coral reefs play an important role as some of the planet’s most diverse ecosystems. With the Gulf of Aqaba acting as a unique coral refuge, perhaps providing the key to understanding the biological mechanism that leads to thermal resistance or the weakness that underlies massive bleaching, it is hoped that the region’s corals could be the future of dying reefs.
While the exact biological mechanism that makes the corals in the Gulf of Aqaba thermally resistant is still unclear, researchers believe that they understand the evolution that would result in said resistance. In essence, following the last ice age, a thermal bottleneck was created at the southern entrance to the Red Sea, meaning that in order for species to reach the Gulf of Aqaba they would have had to develop a certain level of heat resistance.
That said, while the Aqaba corals may well be the future of reefs in dealing with global warming, they are not free of danger. Local oil pollution, nutrients from fish farms and herbicides from gardening could all work to reduce the tolerance of the region’s reefs.
“This reef should receive international recognition as a natural site of great importance, because it might very well be one of the last reefs standing at the end of this century,” said Anders Meibom of EPFL and Université de Lausanne (UNIL).
“I would like to encourage the countries around the Gulf of Aqaba – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Israel – to get together and create a strong protection environmental program, because even if these corals are resistant to rising water temperatures, they are still sensitive to local pollution, overfishing etc, and they need to be protected from this now.”
Provided they can survive local disturbances – hopefully with the help of those countries around the Gulf – researchers hope that they can use samples from the Aqaba reefs to re-seed dying reefs in the Red Sea, and perhaps even around the world.