Research Topic

The Future of Coral Reefs Subject to Rapid Climate Change: Lessons from Natural Extreme Environments

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Coral reefs worldwide are deteriorating at an alarming rate due, in large part, to the effects of unprecedented climate change. Atmospheric CO2 concentration has nearly doubled since the industrial revolution, with increased atmospheric heat trapping and CO2 absorption by seawater ...

Coral reefs worldwide are deteriorating at an alarming rate due, in large part, to the effects of unprecedented climate change. Atmospheric CO2 concentration has nearly doubled since the industrial revolution, with increased atmospheric heat trapping and CO2 absorption by seawater leading to warmer and more acidic oceans. The year 2016 has documented some of the highest temperatures on record and has highlighted the severity of climate stress, with many reefs suffering the worst extents of bleaching induced coral mortality to date.

Global research efforts needed to inform effective policy and reef management continue to focus on how persistent climatic change will shape the future form and function of coral reefs. Whilst laboratory-based experimentation has been key to addressing these unknowns, such experiments often exclude the ecological and biogeochemical complexities inherent to natural reef systems. Researchers are therefore increasingly turning to examine how coral reefs and associated flora and fauna have already acclimatised to function under present day extreme environmental conditions that represent possible analogues for the future. Examples include marginal reef systems at latitudinal extremes of reef growth, as well as reef-neighbouring habitats in both shallow (mangroves, seagrass, inter-tidal habitats, reef flats, shallow lagoons, up-welling sites and CO2 vents) and deep waters (mesophotic habitats). Studying such natural extremes can inform our understanding of how species cope with change, and allows us to evaluate the potential for community-scale reorganisation as a consequence of changing environmental conditions. Increasingly, research is identifying that many species have expanded their niche into environments that are considered sub-optimal by modern day standards – whether this reflects physiological plasticity or genetic reorganisation remains to be seen. Either way, naturally extreme systems have the potential to act as local reservoirs of highly stress resistant species populations.

For this research topic, we seek to explore the role of extreme and marginal marine systems in sustaining reef biodiversity, and aiding reef resilience and resistance in a world subject to rapid climate change. Specific areas of interest include:

• Description(s) of new extreme/marginal systems (conditions) sustaining corals and coral reef associated organisms;
• Identification of mechanisms underpinning stress tolerance, from physiological and behavioural plasticity to genetic adaptation, to naturally extreme conditions;
• Exploration of processes that aid our understanding of how reef populations are sustained (e.g., pre- and post-settlement processes);
• We welcome manuscripts that focus on any level of biological organisation.


Keywords: coral reef, refugia, extreme environments, climate change, marginal habitats


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