A safe haven for corals within the Red Sea

  • Date

    Tue 17 Oct 17

Coral in the Red Sea

Rising sea temperatures are devastating coral reefs around the world, but new research reveals corals in the Northern Red Sea are among the most likely to survive, so a concerted effort is needed to protect them.

Coral bleaching, which can ultimately kill the coral, is a major concern with a combination of global warming and El Niño events to blame. The El Niño is a naturally-occurring phenomenon, which causes short-term, but potentially catastrophic spikes in temperature every five to seven years. In the last major one in 2015-2016, 90% of the coral in the north of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, was killed.

Many experts believe, if nothing is done, coral reefs will be functionally wiped out across the world within the next 30 to 50 years – and with an estimated half-a-billion billion people dependent on them for their livelihoods, that would be an economic, as well as an environmental disaster.

Now scientists from our Coral Reef Research Unit, working with colleagues in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Australia, believe there is renewed hope if countries around the Red Sea take action to protect the coral there.

Dr Eslam Osman, whose latest research is published in Global Change Biology this month, explained: “We have studied sea temperature records for the last 30 years and compared them with instances of bleaching and have found that although the Red Sea is one of the hottest bodies of water on the planet, bleaching in the northern area is rare.

“Our historical field data, combined with experiments, demonstrate that corals throughout the northern region of the Red Sea have a much higher heat tolerance, relative to the temperatures they usually experience, making this area one of the last safe-havens for corals.

Professor David Smith, the Director of the Coral Reef Research Unit and co-author of this latest study, said previous research concentrated on Indonesia and the Seychelles, where despite pockets of resistance, coral bleaching is widespread.

He said: “This new research identifies the entire northern Red Sea region, that covers a 1500km coastline as a refugia of global significance and we need to do everything we can to stop any other stresses to protect the corals in this area.

“We have really reached a point where we need active conservation and intervention if we are to ensure the future of tropical coral reefs. We now know the consequences of doing nothing and science needs to focus on identifying and testing solutions, otherwise, within our lifetime, we could lose one of the most biodiverse and economically-important ecosystems.”

The Coral Reef Research Unit has been carrying our internationally-recognised research for the last 10 years in a bid to give us a better understanding of these complex ecosystems so we can manage them better and ensure their survival.