A new study by University of Florida and Caribbean researchers indicates even damaged reefs can recover.
Coral reefs are damaged by natural disturbances and local and global anthropogenic stresses such as global warming and ocean acidification. As stresses intensify, so do debates about whether reefs will recover after significant damage.
From 1999 to 2012, scientists from University of Florida studied reefs around Little Cayman Island, which is known for its healthy reefs and for being relatively undisturbed. Much of the reef surrounding Little Cayman Island is protected, so damage from fishing, anchoring and some other human activities is minimized.
Researchers wanted to see how well the reefs stood up over time under a variety of stresses that included, for example, increased sea surface temperatures.
During the 13 years warm ocean temperatures led to bleaching and infectious disease that reduced live coral cover by more than 40 percent between 1999 and 2004.
However, seven years later, the amount of live coral on the reefs, the density of young colonies critical to the reefs' future health, and the overall size of corals all had returned to the 1999 state, the study showed.
The health of the coral assemblage and the similarity of responses across levels of protection suggested that negligible anthropogenic disturbance at the local scale was a key factor underlying the observed resilience.
In plain words, if we protect corals, they stand a much better chance at coping with rising sea temperatures and acidification.