Inside the Mission to Find 50 Reefs That Could Survive Climate Change

The 50 Reefs project set up an ambitious goal: find coral areas that could survive until 2050.Emily Darling/WCS

Last year, a bold initiative set out to locate coral reefs most likely to survive global warming. That turned out to be far easier said than done – but now scientists hope the results will rally attention to regions where there’s hope to save crucial marine ecosystems.

It was only after coral reef ecologist Emma Kennedy accepted a postdoctoral position at a prestigious research group in Australia that she learned details of her assignment.

Working with a team of top scientists led by her boss at the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute, she and a colleague would have a year to develop a list of 50 coral reefs that had the best shot at surviving climate change until or if global temperatures stabilized under the terms of the Paris climate accord. Identifying those reefs now could help rally people to protect them from more prosaic but still deadly threats like overfishing and pollution. The thinking was that larvae from those reefs could also help repopulate other reef areas that don’t survive.

It was always going to be a bold endeavor, but at first Kennedy thought the idea of picking 50 reefs in a year was more like mission impossible.

“I went home and thought maybe I should quit now, because it’s just too big of a challenge,” she said.

A flurry of attention followed when the 50 Reefs project laid down its own gauntlet in a public announcement. With half of coral reefs lost around the world in the last 30 years and up to 90 percent projected to die in the next, the initiative brought in three foundations, a team of more than a dozen scientific advisers and major conservation groups in an urgent, collaborative effort to create the “first global plan to save the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet,” according to the February 2017 press release.

A damselfish swims around bleached coral. (Emily Darling/WCS)

A little more than a year later, with the speedy publication of the 50 Reefs team’s scientific results in June, the project has wrapped and those involved are considering how to proceed. After scientific meetings in Hawaii and Australia featured heated debates, it turned out Kennedy was both right and wrong about the impossibility of the task.

In the end, there is no simple straightforward list of 50 reefs to save. There is, backers say, a critical path forward for making strategic, global decisions about scientific and conservation investments in coral reefs. And the team has identified one portfolio of 50 areas, from little-studied reefs around Myanmar to several in the iconic Great Barrier Reef, that are good places to start looking.

“The biggest challenge actually has been around coming to terms that we’re not going find the 50 best reefs. Thats not what this was about,” said Melissa Wright, a program officer for Bloomberg Philanthropies, the largest of the project’s three funders. “What this is about is being as smart as we possibly can about the risk profiles of places and deciding to work together to protect them from near-term threats.”

In facing that challenge, the 50 Reefs initiative is achieving another goal: pushing everyone scientists, funders and conservation managers, governments and the public alike to grapple with hard questions on how, in a world of limited resources, to best improve the odds that some of today’s reef areas will survive current threats.

“It’s a very useful construct. It forces society to be realistic.”

“It’s a very useful construct,” said David Obura, director of the nonprofit coastal ocean research institute CORDIO East Africa and a West Indian Ocean coral expert who participated in the 50 Reefs scientific steering group. “It forces society to be realistic. If you can establish that as the basis for planning, and people say, ‘well, I don’t like that,’ you say, ‘well, what are you going to do about it?’”

That was, of course, by design. The project got started in conversations Richard Vevers, a former advertising executive turned underwater photographer featured in the acclaimed Netflix documentary “Chasing Coral,” had with foundations around the release of the film. He and his team at the Ocean Agency were diving around the world during the 2014-2017 global bleaching events, which were of unprecedented size and severity. “It was a rather depressing time,” he said. “We saw a lot of dead reefs.”

 

With the attention the film captured, he wanted to direct efforts toward solutions. The best communication strategy, he thought, would be to make it “very, very clear” exactly where and how people can make a difference. While there are many regional and local coral reef initiatives around the world, what Vevers said was lacking was a galvanizing global plan.

Talking it through with Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, the University of Queensland Global Change Institute director, and Bloomberg Philanthropies, they settled on the 50 Reefs idea to pinpoint critical coral reefs that could survive warming through 2050 and would also be well positioned to repopulate other areas where reefs had been devastated by climate change.

Three funders Bloomberg, Paul G. Allen Philanthropies and the Tiffany & Co. Foundation contributed more than $1 million to the initiative, while Hoegh-Guldberg assembled a scientific steering committee that advised the project. The Wildlife Conservation Society, meanwhile, led a meeting in New York with other conservation groups, including WWF, The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International, to map out the current landscape of conservation options and best ways to follow up on the results.

Picking 50 reef “winners” was an understandably fraught subject for scientists who have spent their careers diving in and studying their own coral regions.

“This kind of analysis will definitely not match everyone’s expectations of what they thought the answer should be,” said Obura. “We fall in love with our system and it’s a challenge to do the work, so you have to be very motivated to do it. You can have very heated debates even amongst people that otherwise get along very well and have quite similar opinions.”

What Happens to Number 51?

That was especially true given gaps and uncertainties in the available scientific data, combined with limited funding for coral reef conservation and management in comparison to the scale of the coral crisis. “It could become a big problem if a very high-profile analysis like this says, ‘oh, well, that area is not going to be very well,’ what do you when youre advising donors and governments to invest in a place where the analysis says its not really going to be reef in the future?” Obura asked.

There is no right answer, and the obvious difficult question for the researchers was, “What happens to number 51?”

We were struggling to write the paper,” said Kennedy. “Everything about the methodology we put together is very robust and scientifically rigorous. But the thing that’s not scientifically rigorous is 50.”

Vevers said that the number 50 was chosen because it’s big enough to require ambitious investment and planning but small enough to send the message that many reefs are already doomed, even within the limits of the Paris accord, the agreement that the world’s nations made in 2015 to limit temperature rise to 2C – the number scientists say is needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. You need to capture attention to be able to get action. That was sort of a deliberate strategy that we embraced early on,” said Vevers.

Funders, too, have been eager to learn from the results.

“Geographic prioritizations are always controversial because there are always winners and losers, and they are challenging because they are always made on incomplete data,” said James Deutsch, director of biodiversity conservation at Paul G. Allen Philanthropies. “But they are really critical if you are going to maximize the impact of the money you’re spending.”

Emily Darling, diving in Madagascar, as she studies coral health. (Emily Darling/WCS)

At the first meeting of the scientific steering group in Hawaii in April 2017, the scientists immediately faced the most basic philosophical question of “what is a reef?” said Emily Darling, a coauthor of the 50 Reefs paper and conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City.

They debated which of many dozens of sources of data to use to inform their decisions and how to be fair to areas of the world that are far less studied than, for instance, the ocean around Australia and the United States. The meeting ended with notes covering a whiteboard, and then Kennedy and Hawthorne Beyer, both postdoctoral researchers in Hoegh-Guldberg’s group, went home to Australia to gather data and work out the mathematical formulas they would use to determine a result. One goal in using an algorithm was that scientists shouldn’t be able to steer results toward their own coral region or based on what they have personally observed.

In the end, several key decisions were made. The project divided the world’s coral reefs into 25 square-kilometer (9.6 square-mile) areas and calculated a score based on 30 sets of globally available climate and satellite data grouped in five categories: temperature history of the area over the last 30 years, more recent temperatures during the recent global bleaching event, projected future heat conditions, cyclone activity and an area’s connectivity, via ocean currents, to other reefs.

Those criteria had the benefit of focusing on climate change and storm risks that can’t be managed locally, while ignoring biological and ecological data, because there were so many gaps in understudied regions. Because the initial question was about climate risk only, the scientists wouldn’t consider other factors such as economic or cultural values – for why any particular reef might be worth saving.

Local biology can vary from reef to reef, but the 50 Reefs results didn’t consider these variations. (Emily Darling/WCS)

Because of uncertainties with picking such small areas with limited data and no local input, the researchers then used an algorithm to “cluster,” or combine, the highest scoring cells near others into larger areas, so that each larger area contained about 500 square kilometers (200 square miles) of reef.

They designated 162 of these “bioclimatic units,” representing the top scoring half of all reefs that they now thought would be least vulnerable to climate change and best placed to replenish nearby reefs. The bioclimatic units are much larger than an individual reef, varying in size from 1,000-22,000 square kilometers of ocean, depending on how densely packed reefs are in a given region. For example, the units on the Great Barrier Reef are fairly small, but others run up and down large areas of coastline, containing a wide array of reef conditions and local biology.

Now the scientists just had to pick 50 of these units. They decided to make sure the 50 were distributed around the globe, so they weren’t all in, say, the Coral Triangle. To hedge their bets, Beyer, whose background was in modeling, borrowed a time-tested concept from finance that is still very new in conservation science: “modern portfolio theory.”

Economist Harry Markowitz won the 1990 Nobel Prize for his seminal 1952 idea about how risk-averse investors can diversify and manage their portfolios to maximize their returns for a given level of acceptable risk. Anyone with a retirement account is familiar with these concepts today. The 50 Reefs model tapped the theory to help the scientists choose a “balanced” portfolio of 50 areas. But the idea was that this approach would also be flexible enough to incorporate additional or new kinds of data in the future or weigh them differently. Kennedy also noted that looking for a different number of reefs could produce a different portfolio.

Results of the 50 Reefs work. The 50 areas of coral reefs chosen as part of a “balanced risk” portfolio are outlines in purple and green boxes. Additional reef areas in orange boxes may also yield high conservation returns. (Conservation Letters)

Ultimately, the scientists’ research paper, published in the journal Conservation Letters, describes a portfolio of bioclimatic areas that, at about 500 square kilometers of coral reef each, constitute almost 10 percent of the 285,000 square kilometers of estimated reef area in the world. The paper also names areas beyond the 50 that scored highly but were not included as part of the ideal “balanced portfolio.

Need to ‘Drill Down’

There were surprises and disappointments, and the scientists now face the challenge of how to talk about the opportunities and limitations of the results, especially for areas that did not make the cut.

Obura studies the West Indian Ocean and was glad to see coral areas off the coast of Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania score high, but he said the result wasn’t what he was expecting. His 15 years of research have led him to believe corals in the area to the south, in the Mozambique Channel, would be most resilient to climate change.

Thats great for Kenya,” he said. “Thats great for where I work and the whole coast of Tanzania, but I dont know how to explain it yet.” The finding will be useful, he noted, in talking to officials and citizens in these countries about conservation and good management, because these reefs currently face many other dire threats.

“It felt unfair that some of these reefs didn’t come up,
but it’s because climate change isn’t fair.”

Hawaii wasn’t included in the tally, disappointing to someone like Ruth Gates, a prominent coral researcher and director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology who is a coauthor on the paper, said Kennedy. “She completely understood,” Kennedy said. “I think it’s part of where it sits. It’s not very well connected to other systems.”

Other beloved coral areas, such as Palau, the Chagos Archipelago and Micronesia, also didn’t qualify based on the 50 Reefs model’s climate and connectivity-based criteria. “It felt unfair that some of these reefs didnt come up, but its because climate change isnt fair,” said Kennedy.

Sharks swim in reef areas around Hawaii. (Kimberly Jeffries)

And despite the less-than-straightforward outcome, the project and the model had immense value, laying groundwork for directing future science and conservation investments, according to participants. And as Darling put it, it’s a great example of how scientists need to “break out of the ivory tower” as the urgency of the coral reef crisis intensifies.

Scientists, however, are also aware that the project was very top-down and say the crucial next step is working with regional and local experts to “drill down” into each area, within the 50 regions and beyond, by looking at additional on-the-ground data and experience. This step could take years and is one that conservation groups involved like Wildlife Conservation Society and WWF are considering how to approach.

“Conservation organizations are both individually and collectively thinking about how to use this information to enable meaningful conservation,” said Darling. “The next steps are to look at where are places that NGOs are already working and where are there gaps and new efforts [that] can be led,” she added.

“We don’t need to reinvent
the wheel.”

Bloomberg Philanthropies, said Wright, is excited that there is now a “robust approach” that can be used to make smart decisions and is now considering how to best move forward. She noted that the results of the conservation strategy meeting, summarized in a paper, were also helpful in learning that addressing local reef threats is generally worthwhile and doable, despite warming trends.

“It’s been extremely valuable to learn that … we dont need to reinvent the wheel,” Wright said. “We can really use what we have in our toolkit already. Thats not where our starting point was. We werent sure if wed be able to find places that seemed like they could survive nor were we sure that best-practice solutions were the things that could be deployed to really make a difference. But we feel confident now through this effort that thats a good approach.”

Meanwhile Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, said Deutsch, wants to continue its existing focus on the “flip side of the coin” to this project – developing new strategies, such as assisted evolution, that could help the larger majority of reefs that will do badly under future warming conditions.

Still, not everyone agrees that the 50 Reefs high-level strategizing and documenting is an ideal use of effort. “We know what we need to do” to manage coral reefs and remove local stressors, said Phillip Dustan, a coral scientist at the College of Charleston. With climate change, he said, it’s hard to pick the winners and losers. “I think they’ve spent a lot of money. I think they’ve gotten interesting outcomes,” he said. “But we need to be spending all this expertise and time and energy on getting the locals to work [to protect reefs.]”

Looking up during a reef survey. (Emily Darling/WCS)

What is clear is that more funding is needed if there’s any hope of saving the most resilient reefs, let alone the least. Project backers hope the 50 Reefs research can help mobilize support.

“The funding gap is huge,” said Deutsch, especially considering the billions of dollars of value lost when reefs die. We need to move from tens of millions of dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars” a year, he said. He cited the Australian government’s recent announcement it will invest $377 million to address Great Barrier Reef threats as the first country to grapple with the gap, but in the developing world, addressing funding challenges will be even tougher.

Of course, all the conservation funding in the world wont do a thing if greenhouse gas emissions dont decline soon and over the long term. Even the most climate-resilient coral reefs are not expected to survive if ocean temperatures keep rising. Australias new coral reef funding, for example, has been criticized because the government is also continuing to approve new coal-fired power plants.

Assuming the worlds carbon output can be controlled in time, Vevers said unusual collaborations, like those developed in 50 Reefs, will be required to find the money to protect reefs and manage surrounding ocean areas with the best survival chances. “We need to grow the funding thats available and also the effectiveness, the use of that funding. And we need to do it very, very quickly.”

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