How will coral reefs respond to climate change in tropicalised temperate regions?


Understanding ecological responses within coral reef habitats is becoming increasingly important as the pressures of climate change are amplified in marine ecosystems. The diversity of ecosystem change is of particular interest, as it is predicted that new coastal and oceanic norms will be forming by 2030 with entirely novel combinations becoming evident across the majority of the ocean. While coral reef ecosystem decline has been recorded in tropical regions, there has been a documented emergence of coral expansion southward into temperate regions, which is projected to increase in the coming decades as the oceans warm further. Coral species associated with tropical habitats are now being found in temperate reefs along NSW and, although coral bleaching in response to increasing temperature stress has been recorded across all marine environments, heat-induced mortality in temperate locations has been relatively lower than recorded in tropical coral populations. 


At the Sydney Institute of Marine Science a team of UNSW researchers are investigating the biological mechanisms underpinning coral success or failure in tropicalised temperate regions. Combining the aquaria infrastructure at SIMS with laboratory facilities at UNSW Sydney, researchers will be simulating the oceanic conditions of NSW’s temperate reefs and assessing how a coral’s health and the associated microbial ecology respond to a range of environmental pressures such as ocean warming. Data collected from this experimental work will help advance our understanding of how corals adapt to the oceanic conditions of NSW under a changing climate. This project is of significance to New South Wales marine environment protection and is directly relevant to emerging global concerns of tropicalisation within temperate marine ecosystems. Overall, this research will shed more light on the oceanographic and biological mechanisms that facilitate the success and failure of the unique coral populations emerging in Australia’s temperate marine regions.

This project is led by UNSW Sydney’s Associate Professor Tracy Ainsworth, Coulson Lantz from Southern Cross University and Professor Bill Leggat from the University of Newcastle.