University of Exeter

Great Barrier Reef’s Deeper Areas Offer Some Protection From Heat Waves, Study Finds

A recent study shows that some deeper areas of the Great Barrier Reef are insulated from harmful heat waves.

Findings collected by The University of Queensland (UQ) and the University of Exeter have shed light on the protective mechanisms of certain deeper areas of the Great Barrier Reef.

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However, the research warns that this insulation could be compromised if global warming continues.

The study, led by Professor Peter Mumby from UQ’s Centre for Marine Science, focused on mesophotic corals, which thrive at depths of 30-50 meters. 

These corals benefit from the separation between warm surface waters and cooler deeper waters, which can act as a buffer against extreme heat events. 

“Coral bleaching is a dramatic sign of the impact humans are having on the planet, and it is increasingly observed at greater depths,” Mumby said.

Dr Jennifer McWhorter from UQ explained that while similar patterns could occur in reefs worldwide, the degree of protection offered by deeper water coral refugees would vary. 

She cautioned that a three-degree increase in temperature could push mesophotic temperatures past 30 degrees Celsius, potentially threatening coral survival.

“Our study offers both hope and a warning, hope that some reefs are resilient to current levels of climate change, and a warning that this resilience has its limits.”

Researchers projected that temperatures at the bottom of the Great Barrier Reef’s mesophotic zone could rise by 0.5 to one degree Celsius under lower greenhouse gas emissions scenarios by 2050- 2060.

Dr Paul Halloran from Exeter’s Global Systems Institute called for a better understanding of and protection of coral reefs.

“By targeting management of these threats, hopefully, some healthy reefs can be maintained,” he said.

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