Ordinarily, she added pushing the analogy, without fresh air coming in, it gets harder and harder for living things to thrive, "yet in the case of the corals in Palau, we're finding the opposite.
"What we found is that coral cover and coral diversity actually increase as you move from the outer reefs and into the Rock Islands, which is exactly the opposite of what we were expecting."
The scientists' next steps are to determine if these corals are genetically adapted to low pH or whether Palau provides a "perfect storm" of environmental conditions that allows these corals to survive the low pH. "If it's the latter, it means if you took those corals out of that specific environment and put them in another low pH environment that doesn't have the same combination of conditions, they wouldn't be able to survive," said Cohen. "But if they're genetically adapted to low pH, you could put them anywhere and they could survive."
"These reef communities have developed under these conditions for thousands of years," said Shamberger, "and we're talking about conditions that are going to be occurring in a lot of the rest of the ocean by the end of the century. We don't know if other coral reefs will be able to adapt to ocean acidification the time scale might be too short."
The scientists are careful to stress that their finding in Palau is different from every other low pH environment that has been studied. "When we find a reef like Palau where the coral communities are thriving under low pH, that's an exception," said Cohen. "It doesn't mean coral reefs around the globe are going to be OK under ocean acidification conditions. It does mean that there are some coral communities out there and we've found one that appear to have figured it out. But that doesn't mean all coral reef ecosystems are going to figure it out."
By working with scientists at the
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Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution