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Climate Change

Helping Coral Reefs That Help People

More than half of the world's coral reefs face threats from climate change.

"The reefs have demonstrated resilience over multiple previous climate changes throughout history. They offer hope as a global refuge for coral survival throughout our current troubling climate change."

Rod Salm, The Nature Conservancy's Director of Marine Conservation Programs for the Asia Pacific Region

The reefs of the Coral Triangle — a spectacular area in the Indian and Pacific Oceans that contains more than one-half of the world's coral reefs and one-half of all reef fish species — now face mounting threats from climate change.

These threats include damage from storm surges and coral bleaching brought on by higher seawater temperatures that stress coral, or cause them to die if the heat stress becomes too severe.

But it's not just the Triangle's natural wonders that are under pressure from climate-change effects. Millions of people directly depend on the reef systems in the Coral Triangle — for food, jobs, tourism and coastal protection — and would suffer greatly if this ecosystem were to decline. This is in addition to many more people who depend on other marine and coastal resources for their livelihoods. 

Identifying Resilient Coral — And Seeding It in Damaged Reefs

That's why The Nature Conservancy is working throughout the Coral Triangle to help establish networks of marine protected areas that support coral reef resilience to climate change.

Conservancy scientists are identifying areas of bleaching resistance following a mass-bleaching event to ensure that these areas get high levels of protection, from over-fishing and other destructive activities. These resilient areas function to “seed" damaged areas in the hopes that they can recover. 

"Climate change impacts are at such a vast scale that the only way to respond is by using nature to help the reseeding and recovery of damaged areas,"  says Rod Salm, The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Marine Conservation Programs for the Asia-Pacific Region. "The resistant sites provide the natural refuges that will enable recovery at scales commensurate with the impact from climate change.

“The reefs of the Coral Triangle have demonstrated resilience over multiple previous climate changes throughout history,” Salm adds. “They offer hope as a global refuge for coral survival throughout our current troubling climate change.”

Vast, Unparalleled Biodiversity at Risk

The Coral Triangle covers 2.3 million square miles of the Indian and Pacific Oceans — equivalent to one-half of the area of the lower-48 states — and includes eastern Indonesia, parts of Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and the Solomon Islands. The Coral Triangle, and the reefs of Indonesia in particular, are one of the most diverse in the world, containing:

But the stunning coral gardens aren't just for show. Salm says that the reefs of the Coral Triangle provide $2.3 billion annually in ecosystem services to people — including coastal protection. He estimates that it would cost between $250,000 and $15 million per kilometer of coast to replace the Coral Triangle's reefs and mangrove forests with man-made coastal defenses.

“This is a service reefs provide for free,” Salm says. “They are no-cost, no-maintenance, natural breakwaters.” 

Adapting for People and Nature

Around the world, people depend on natural systems for their survival. The Conservancy’s work in the Coral Triangle is just one example of the type of adaptation and resilience work that will need to take place as people, wildlife and habitats begin to experience the effects of climate change.

Therefore, it is imperative that programs and funding for implementing nature-based adaptation strategies are established to help build the resilience of nature and communities in the face of climate change.

Sound Adaptation Policies

In December, governments from around the world will gather in Bali, Indonesia to meet under the United Nations to discuss a renewed international climate change agreement that will go into effect after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. Nature Conservancy staff will attend this meeting to advocate for a clear roadmap that would provide a timeline to complete negotiations of a post-Kyoto agreement. 

In Bali, the Conservancy will work to build support among governments for policies and funding that will help people and nature adapt to the changes that are coming. THese policies should:

  • Recognize the role of healthy, resilient natural areas in reducing climate change impacts on people;
  • Seek adaptation strategies that look at conserving natural ecosystems first before building new infrastructure;
  • Incorporate ecosystem resilience principles and nature-based adaptation strategies into development and adaptation planning;
  • Adjust conservation and natural resource management approaches to enable plants, animals and natural communities to adapt to inevitable impacts;
  • Provide dedicated and incremental funding to implement nature-based adaptation strategies; and
  • Fund programs and efforts to address scientific gaps in regards to climate change impacts on ecosystems and people.

 

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