Coral heads for the poles

You might think that corals and the reefs that they form are static things. Yet these spines of the ocean are, like your own spine, are in constant flux. In the case of reefs the corals themselves are living entities and like any living being they respond to changing circumstances. Now, for instance, in response to rising ocean temperatures it seems that the corals are on the march.

Some changes in response to ocean warming have been documented previously. In 2004 in Florida staghorn and elkhorn corals were found further north than they had ever been. In Australia reef-dwelling fish have been found further south than ever before. In this latest study corals around Japan have been measured as heading north at the rate of fourteen kilometres per year. The corals, it appears, are headed for the poles.

It seems that climate change impacts corals via carbon dioxide. As levels of this “greenhouse gas” rise in the atmosphere, that also causes CO2 to dissolve into the oceans. That in turn makes the waters of the ocean more acidic and acidic waters can strip corals of their calcium carbonate shells; essentially, reefs will be dissolved.

Stressed corals are also more susceptible to epidemics, known as “epizootics” when non-human species are affected.

Not surprisingly, the corals don’t fancy shell dissolution too much and so they have decided to bugger off, heading away from the warm waters of low latitudes and heading for the cooler seas closer to the poles.

The good news is that a natural solution may be at hand. It seems that coral populations that are impacted by high temperatures are often re-populated by short-lived, fast growing corals that are less likely to spread disease thus making an epizootic episode less likely. The downside of this is that it is kind of like cutting down an old growth forest and replanting it with fast growing species. You lose a lot of “corporate knowledge” to put it in the language of business.

Researchers are predicting that corals will essentially evacuate tropical waters if things keep heating up. While that may be a reasonable thing for the corals as they holiday in higher latitudes, it will certainly be disruptive to tropical ecosystems.

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The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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