It appears that some cold-water corals in the Cook Islands do have the ability to adapt to rising global temperatures, provided that the rate of increase is kept in check.
Scientists have discovered that some corals in the waters of Cook Islands have genetic variants that predispose then to heat tolerance. Nevertheless, although this may help them to adapt faster to rising temperatures, the rate of climate change may just prove to be too rapid.
In their study (published in the Science Advances journal), the scientists ran computer simulations on tabletop corals, based on projections by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change.
There were three scenarios: A least severe one in which temperatures do not exceed 1.8 degrees Celsius by 2100; a moderate one in which emissions peak and then quickly decline by 2040, and a business-as-usual one in which emissions continue to rise rapidly, and temperatures increase between 2 and 3.7 degrees.
In the first two scenarios, the corals were able to adapt and survive. In the third, they were could not adapt fast enough and succumbed.
These corals aren't going to adapt at an unlimited rate," said lead author Rachael Bay, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Davis. "Keeping these reefs around requires curbing emissions."
Co-author Steve Palumbi from Stanford University added, "Many existing coral populations have a bank of adaptations that has been evolving for a long time, Those existing adaptations are an asset for them to survive longer and for us humans to benefit longer."