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Resilient reefs: Scientists map Caribbean’s most climate-proof corals

Prioritising locations for protection and restoration in the face of multiple threats, study offers conservation lessons across global ecosystems

Fish swim around staghorn coral on a reef in St. Croix, Virgin Islands
Successful coral outplant Staghorn coral carefully grown by scientists in a lab has been successfully planted at a reef in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. Scientists are boosting genetic diversity in corals © John Melendez

As Earth’s ecosystems struggle to adapt to the pace of human-driven climate change, a new study focusing on Caribbean coral reefs provides lessons for conservation planners worldwide who are working to protect irreplaceable habitats in the face of an uncertain future.

Led by marine spatial scientist Dr Iliana Chollett, in close collaboration with researchers from global environment non-profit The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the paper – published today in the journal Global Change Biology – identifies areas of Caribbean reef system with strongest potential to withstand the effects of climate change and continue their vital role in sustaining ocean biodiversity.

Comparing factors including vulnerability of corals to thermal stress from warming waters, exposure to hurricane damage, and coral larvae connectivity – across four contrasting future climate scenarios and 57 different climate models – the team found that areas of highest potential as reef ‘refugia’ are predominantly located along the northern shoreline of Cuba, with other promising sites clustered around the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Haiti, eastern Jamaica, and the U.S. state of Florida

As the planet’s weather systems become increasingly unpredictable over the course of this century, so these climate refugia will represent priority sites for ocean life and complement other approaches to preserving and restoring the most vital wildlife habitats.

Commenting on the significance of the study, lead author Iliana Chollett said: “Climate change is already the biggest threat to life on Earth. Locating and managing those places that hold greatest promise to sustain key species will be critical for helping these precious habitats persist as the planet continues to warm. The prioritisation model we developed for this study, looking at just one region and ecosystem type – Caribbean corals – has exciting potential to inform the efforts of governments and conservationists the world over, not only in the ocean but across all lands and waters.”

Elaborating further on the importance of this work, Ximena Escovar-Fadul – TNC’s Senior Associate for Ocean Planning and Mapping – said: “This study represents one of the first of its kind to exploit the uncertainties that exist in different climate models and global warming scenarios, helping conservation planners navigate the complex set of trade-offs required to deliver durable, climate-smart protection for those ecosystems most likely to survive this century. Crucially, these findings also informed a series of local stakeholder consultations with Caribbean communities, ensuring these insights aren’t just theoretical – as is still the case with a lot of prioritisation science – but already actively shaping on-the-ground reef conservation efforts across these priority sites for coral resilience.”

To learn more about TNC’s work across the Caribbean, please visit this link.

For more detail around our research on coral climate refugia, see this link.  

To explore TNC’s wider work on to secure a Nature-Positive world via this year’s crucial UN Biodiversity Conference COP15, click here.

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Notes for Editors

Chollet I., Escovar-Fadul X., Schill S.R., Croquer A., Dixon A.M., Beger M., Shaver E., Pietsch McNulty V., Wolff N.H. Planning for resilience: Incorporating scenario and model uncertainty and trade-offs when prioritising management of climate refugia. Global Change Biology. 

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.16167

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.