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With water getting warmer, carbon dioxide level rising and bleaching events becoming more frequent, a team of Australian researchers has issued advice that more research is urgently required to determine whether corals can acclimatise and adapt to the rapid pace of climate change.
The researchers from ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at James Cook University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) have recommended for future research.
These corals build the frameworks that provide shelter, food and habitat for an entire ecosystem and if corals are lost, the diversity and abundance of other reef organisms declines, until ultimately the ecosystem collapses.
They advised more research is urgently needed into the poorly-understood mechanisms that corals might use to survive in a rapidly warming world.
"There is still a lot to understand about corals," said lead researcher Gergely Torda from James Cook University in Queensland, Australia.
"While our only real chance for their survival is to reverse climate change, a nugget of hope exists - that the corals may be able to adapt to their changing environment," Torda added.
Co-author Dr Jenni Donelson stated that the recent studies show that fish can acclimatise to higher water temperatures when several generations are exposed to the same increased temperature, but whether corals can do the same, and how they might achieve this, is largely unknown.
The team agrees that further research identifying how corals respond to climate change is critical, as the Earth undergoes an unprecedented rate of environmental change.
AIMS Climate Change Scientist, Dr Line Bay said, "There is sufficient inertia in the climate system that we will not be able to prevent further climate-related disturbances affecting the reef in the immediate future."
"Solutions are required to help corals adapt and acclimate to near-term future climate pressures while we figure out how to reduce emissions and halt and reverse longer-term climate change," Bay stated.
The researchers concluded that the time to act is now, as the window of opportunity to save coral reefs is rapidly closing.
The research appears in journal Nature Climate Change.