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sharing and inspiring ideas for ocean solutions

Adaptive capacity of coral reef ecosystems: How pragmatic is pragmatic optimism?

February 12, 2021 at 2:00 PM EST (New York Time)

Stephen Palumbi

Stephen Palumbi

Jane and Marshall Steel, Jr. Professor of Marine Biology, Stanford University

Steve is engaged in study of the genetics, evolution and systematics of marine species to foster conservation and management of marine populations in the Anthropocene. Recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences, Steve’s work has been used in design of the marine protected areas in California, seafood labelling laws, and finding heat resistant corals.

Steve’s latest book for non-scientists, The Extreme Life of the Sea, is about the amazing species in the sea, written with Steve’s son and novelist Anthony. Previous books were The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival and The Evolution Explosion. His work also appears in numerous TV and film documentaries including the 2017 PBS series Big Pacific.

Talk Synopsis & Video Recording

Coral reef ecosystems are built from corals and other calcifiers, house 1000s of species, and protect 10000’s of km of shoreline. What capacity do corals and other reef species have to adapt to ocean conditions in the Anthropocene? Responses to environment come in four MAAD flavors: Move, Acclimate, Adapt or Die, and a wealth of studies are now being done to measure the speed and limits of these responses in coral reef species. How these studies are done depend on century-old approaches like geographic surveys and common garden experiments but are spiced with modern genomics, remote sensing and detailed eco-evolutionary models. I’ll detail some of these from our work on coral heat tolerance in Palau, and then show the ways this kind of information is being used to protect reef habitats and regrow more resilient populations. The emerging science of ecosystem resilience engineering seeks to identify careful interventions in current ecosystems that stabilize them. This will help ecosystems to have something to grow back from, once the global community reduces greenhouse emissions and eventually ushers in a more typical planetary climate.

Breakout Group Discussions

(1) In a system you work in or know well, what ways do you think species might very well be able to adapt to future climates? (2) Are the are any specific human interventions or strategies that can enhance adaptation? (3) How could you tell if adaptation is working?