Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Can coral survive in a warmer world?

One likely effect of global warming is that the oceans will absorb more carbon dioxide and become a little more acidic. Humans probably wouldn’t notice the change when they went swimming, but it would make a big difference to many corals.

Scientists are concerned that these corals’ hard skeletons would dissolve away in more acidic waters. These skeletons form the basis for the coral reefs where many different species of fish and other organisms live.

Some good news comes from a study appearing in the 30 March issue of the journal Science, which suggests that these corals may be able to survive temporary increases in ocean acidity.

Maoz Fine of Bar-Ilan University in Israel and Dan Tchernov of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel and Interuniversity Institute for Marine Science in Eilat, Israel, put fragments of coral into slightly acidified water for 12 months in order to see what would happen.

Most corals are made up of hard skeletons that house hundreds of thousands of individual, soft “polyps.” Over the course of the experiment, the skeletons dissolved away, but the polyps remained stuck to the rocky surfaces that the coral had grown on.

When the researchers put the polyps back in normal seawater after 12 months, they regrew their skeletons, just like normal.

In their study, the authors warn that we still need to do everything we can to protect coral reefs. Yes, it may be possible for the corals to grow back at some point, but if the reefs disappear, this change will damage the ecosystems that depend on them.