There’s a common saying out about the importance of planning for the future. It goes “plan for what may happen or you’ll probably be screwed.” I think Churchill said it, but I’m not a historian. The point is, many times the best plans are those that exhaust all potential possibilities and take into account a wide variety of future scenarios. It’s especially important for marine policy makers to plan this way, since future ocean conditions can be notoriously difficult to predict. However, when we’re looking at threatened marine habitats like coral reefs, the difference between proactive and reactive planning could be the difference between a future with coral reefs and a future without them.
Coral reefs are an incredibly vulnerable ecosystem. They have very picky thermal tolerances, so an increase or decrease in sea surface temperature by just one degree Farenheit could be disastrous for them. They also rely on available calcium carbonate in the environment, something that ocean acidification is making more and more scarce. As we see storm frequencies increase with climate change, some shallower reefs may even be at greater risk of physical degradation from strong winds and waves. Because of the incredibly valuable economic and ecological services they provide, it’s vital that policy makers and scientists effectively protect these fragile systems. In order to do so, these leaders need to understand a variety of future environmental conditions that climate change may impose on coral reefs.
Led by Rafael Magris from James Cook University in Australia, a team of researchers analyzed coral reefs up and down the coast of Brazil to examine their historic, current, and future thermal stress and to develop best management practices to proactively protect these reefs from future impacts of climate change. The team found that all of these reefs experience some level of chronic warming, and that some are in fact located within already established MPAs. However, the authors predicted that both chronic warming and acute thermal stress of coral reefs in the area were likely to increase over the coming years. Additionally, the current design and location of MPAs in the region does not account for adequate protection of historic or future thermal refugia. These are areas with relatively stable climates, and are therefore important habitats to protect.
The authors further pointed out that while it can be difficult to design dynamic MPAs, it’s important that policymakers take into consideration a variety of different management strategies in the design process. This way, they can implement multiple levels of marine protection in areas that not only currently need to be conserved, but also areas that may become vulnerable or threatened in the future. Since the majority of MPAs aren’t designed to expand or retract their borders over time, it’s even more important that the boundaries are ecologically informative and temporally robust. Since we cannot always predict what future conditions under the sea may be, it’s best to overprepare.
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