Surviving the Heat

Coral Reefs & Climate Change

Ocean temperatures are rising and this change will have huge consequences — not only for life in the ocean, but for humans as well.

Many fish in the Arabian Gulf live in and around coral reefs. These reefs are sensitive to fluctuations in sea temperature and can even die if the ocean gets too hot. If the reefs disappear, the fish may as well, threatening the fishing industry that supplies food to millions of people in the region.

Emily Howells, a postdoctoral researcher at NYU Abu Dhabi, is trying to figure out how ocean corals will respond to rising ocean temperatures. She has won a grant from the AXA Research Fund that provides two years of funding to carry out this research.

The Arabian Gulf is the hottest part of the Earth's ocean, experiencing temperatures that peak near 36 degrees celsius. Through her research, Howells is examining how Arabian Gulf corals have adapted to this harsh environment. "Most of the corals we have in the Gulf are not unique species, but are species that are found in other parts of the world," Howells explained. "So it's interesting that Gulf coral are more heat-tolerant than the same species found in the Indian Ocean."

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Understanding what's happening in the Gulf will help us better understand how other corals will respond to climate change.

Emily Howells, postdoctoral researcher

Over time, Howells said, it's possible that individual corals that are better suited to high heat have flourished in the Gulf, while others have died out.

In this project, she and her team will use corals that are genetically similar, but that grew up in different environments. She is trying to figure out if corals react better to hot temperatures if they have been exposed to these conditions early on in life.

Surviving the Heat
Coral reef off Abu Dhabi.

RELATED: Recovering coral reef communities of the Gulf

Howells made an analogy to humans: "It’d be like if you had two brothers who were separated at birth. One grew up in the desert, and one grew up in a colder climate. And then when they were adults you set them off running a marathon in hot weather to see who preformed better."

Howells will then analyze how the corals cope with the extreme temperatures. "If the siblings preform exactly the same," she said, "then we know these kind of acclimation factors are not important. But if we see a strong difference, there’s something going on more than just the genes."

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It’d be like if you had two brothers who were separated at birth. One grew up in the desert, and one grew up in a colder climate. And then when they were adults you set them off running a marathon in hot weather to see who performed better.

Emily Howells

This research may help scientists understand how climate change will affect corals throughout the world’s oceans. "We know that life in the ocean is undoubtedly getting more difficult for corals," Howells noted. "As a scientific community we still don't know exactly which species will survive in the future and which will go extinct. But understanding what's happening in the Gulf will help us better understand how corals elsewhere will respond to climate change.”

Article by Matthew Corcoran, NYUAD Public Affairs