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May 03, 2004

Evolution in Action

Good news for the prospects of the Great Barrier Reef in a time of global warming--Corals in the Maldive Islands, seventy percent of which were wiped out in 1998 by a bleaching event, are recovering at a terrific pace.

Coral growth on the artificial reefs is up to five times faster than normal. But scientists are also surprised by how quickly the natural regeneration of the reefs is occurring.

Azeez says he was amazed on a trip last October to the southern Maldives to discover that perhaps 80 percent of the coral cover had already been restored.

Azeez was particularly encouraged by the fact that the corals that spawned had settled in the shallow waters of Vabbinfaru after 1998 and seemed to be more resistant to heat. "It gives us hope that the reef is coming back to life," he said.

The pace of coral regrowth shouldn't come as much of a surprise. There's not a lot of competitive pressure from other individuals when 70% of a population is wiped out. The fact that the new corals seem more heat-tolerant should have been expected as well--anyone familiar with the idea of natural selection should've been able to predict that the children of the obviously more heat-tolerant surviving corals would dominate the next generation.

Coral reefs have graced the waters of the Earth since the Silurian period--443 million years ago. The coral species have experienced temperatures far warmer (and colder) than anything humanity has lived through in our span on the planet, and they're still here.

Posted by Bigwig at May 3, 2004 02:10 PM | TrackBack
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Comments

One problem with cheering on heat-adapted offspring of species affected by global warming is that actually what we're entering is a period of climate "change", not strictly climate warming. I don't know about coral reefs in the South Pacific -- perhaps the water temperature there will closely correlate with overall global temperature rise. But in many places there will be local climate shifts that may vary widely as temperature and precipitation go both up and down over short periods of time. What has been a relatively stable climate system could become a chaotic one, taxing species' ability to adapt and leading to a spike in the number of extinctions. (And a spike in human misery, as wild weather leads to crop failures, economic disruptions, refugees, political crises and war.)

How can temperatures go down in a period of global warming? I heard this explained once with a simple example. Consider the gulf stream, the huge Atlantic current which pumps heat from the Caribbean to Europe. There are possible global warming outcomes which change the Atlantic currents and shut off the gulf stream like a light switch. As the climatologist I heard explains it, with the gulf stream Europe grows wheat; without the gulf stream, Europe grows polar bears.

And it's even worse if you think the gulf stream could be turned off and on from year to year.

Posted by: Prentiss Riddle at May 5, 2004 09:55 AM
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