Greenstein study shows coral migration in warming waters

MOUNT VERNON — New research by Cornell College Professor of Geology Ben Greenstein suggests that global warming may be responsible for migrating coral species along Australia’s western coast, potentially providing a safe haven for temperature-sensitive species as the oceans warm.

Along with John Pandolfi of the Centre for Marine Studies, University of Queensland, Australia, Greenstein found that corals composing reefs migrated south to cooler waters during a previous warm period and contracted their ranges north as the climate subsequently cooled.

“Tropical species have been observed at higher latitudes since 1993, and this has been attributed to global warming. As sea surface temperatures warm in the coming century, additional coral species may migrate,” said Greenstein. “They may survive warmer conditions in temperature refuges.”

By comparing fossilized coral remains along the western coast of Australia from a warm period 125,000 years ago to modern coral patterns in the same region, the study found certain species of coral moved to more temperate waters during the warm period and then retreated to the north again after temperatures dropped.

The results of that retreat are two distinct coral communities, more diverse reefs in the north, and less diverse reefs composed of different coral in the cool waters of the south. During the warm period, the northern reefs, composed of tropical coral, stretched farther south.

According to Greenstein, sea surface temperatures off the coast of Perth, Western Australia had an average temperature roughly two degrees higher 125,000 years ago. This increase is well within the range predicted for the next century by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change..

The study, “Escaping the heat: range shifts of reef coral taxa in coastal Western Australia,” was published in the international journal Global Change Biology. International coverage of the study can be found by clicking the following links:

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