Due to a prolonged marine heat wave over the last few years, many coral reefs across the globe have become bleached—but the good news is that all is not lost. Here's what experts are doing to save them.

By Zee Krstic
Soft_Light / Getty Images

Scientists have long been aware of rising temperatures and studying the effects of global warming—including the ocean, where marine waters have steadily become warmer over the last decade. Recently, researchers shared evidence that suggested that corals—which are particularly devastated by rising temperatures—are surprisingly resilient and could be finding new reefs to colonize in cooler waters. New research from an international group of scientists found that there's more good news for conservationists: Many of the reefs across the globe are still comprised of complex coral species and marine wildlife, and they're still healthy despite warm waters around them. 

Their research, which was comprised of data collected from 2,500 coral reef systems in 44 different countries, was published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution this month. It did confirm that many once-flourishing coral reef systems have experienced bleaching over the last decade, which occurs when hotter temperatures cause corals to release algae that lives in its tissues (thus leading to a lack of its signature color). Reefs in the Indo-Pacific oceanic region were among the most impacted by coral bleaching between 2014 and 2017. But the research also identified more than 450 reefs in 22 countries that managed to survive in cooler spots, and experts will focus on protecting these areas in the future. 

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"The good news is that functioning coral reefs still exist, and our study shows that it is not too late to save them," Emily Darling, the study's lead author and a Wildlife Conservation Society scientist spearheading the coral monitoring program, told CNN. "Safeguarding coral reefs into the future means protecting the world's last functioning reefs and recovering reefs impacted by climate change. But realistically—on severely degraded reefs—coastal societies will need to find new livelihoods for the future."

Tim McClanahan, a co-author of the study and a senior conservation zoologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, says that the reefs can be saved, in part, due to local efforts: locals should cut back on fishing reef fish in order to maintain biodiversity, while zeroing in on carbon emissions from boats to keep warming to a minimum. The new data showed that the healthiest corals were found far away from populated coastal areas; global efforts will be focused on protecting the 17 percent of reefs that survived the marine heat wave by keeping these areas well conserved

And scientists will also try their best to restore corals that have experienced heat stress or have been bleached altogether; since coastal communities often rely on coral reefs as the main source of their protein, according to Darlings' research, working to repopulate them could prevent other reefs from being overfished in the future.

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