"Colorful Underwater Landscape of a Coral Reef" by Jim E Maragos, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Public Domain

These corals could survive climate change — and help save the world’s reefs

Nov 27, 2019

By Amber Dance

Anne Cohen dropped into the ocean off the coast of the Phoenix Islands expecting to find desolation. It was 2018, and a powerful El Niño weather system two years earlier had warmed the waters around this mid-Pacific atoll by nearly 3 °C. Coral reefs simmered in the heat.

Such feverish temperatures cause the tiny animals that make up a reef to expel the colourful, symbiotic algae that nourish them. They bleach, starve and die. On her expedition to the islands, part of the nation of Kiribati, Cohen found greyish reefs in which almost 70% of corals had expired.

But she also found reason for hope.

“We’d come across these areas, I’m talking about several square kilometres, with super-high coral cover and super-high coral diversity,” recalls Cohen, a marine scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Healthy taupe coral branches sprouted from a field of blonde and rose plates, while schools of gold-and-magenta anthias fish flitted to and fro.

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