© Les Chatfield
© Les Chatfield

Deep sea coral faces threat from climate change

A study has suggested that North Atlantic coral populations – key to supporting a variety of sea life – are under threat from climate change.

Researchers said that changes to winter weather conditions could threaten the long-term survival of coral in the region, upsetting fragile ecosystems that support an array of marine species.

Corals allow diverse forms of marine life to thrive by building reef structures that provide protection from predators and safe spaces to reproduce.

The team focused on a species of cold-water coral – known as Lophelia pertusa – which grows in deep waters.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, used computer models to simulate the migration of larvae across vast stretches of ocean. They did so to predict the effect weather changes could have on the long-term survival of Lophelia pertusa populations in the North Atlantic.

They found that a shift in average winter conditions in western Europe – one of the predicted impacts of climate change – could threaten coral populations.

The team found Scotland’s network of Marine Protected Areas (MPA) appears to be weakly connected, making it vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Dr Alan Fox of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, who conducted the analysis, said: “We can’t track larvae in the ocean, but what we know about their behaviour allows us to simulate their epic journeys, predicting which populations are connected and which are isolated. In less well-connected coral networks, populations become isolated and cannot support each other, making survival and recovery from damage more difficult.”

The study is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science. It was carried out in collaboration with Heriot-Watt University, Scotland, through a Daphne Jackson fellowship and as part of the ATLAS project, funded by the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.