Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

Are corals in the Middle East special?

Saih Al-Shaib reef in Dubai. © John Burt

Coral reefs around the world are suffering due to climate change – there’s little doubt about that.

The increasing sea surface temperature and acidity of the world’s oceans and seas are causing bleaching of the corals, a condition where they die, become white in colour and are covered by algae – losing their vibrant ecosystem.

However, coral reefs around the Middle East seem to be tolerating the changes much better than those in other places of the world. Scientists are now turning to these resilient species, wondering if they hold the answer to saving fragile coral reefs habitats elsewhere.

“The bleaching phenomenon is becoming more common and increasing and is not conserved to a certain area of the world,” says John Burt, a marine biologist at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Institute. “I don’t expect we as a society will be doing anything about climate change anytime soon so what I’m interested in is what will organisms do to adapt to the increasing water temperature.”

Corals in the Great Barrier Reef, The world’s largest coral reef system, start to bleach at around 30°C. However, those in the Persian Gulf can tolerate up to 35°C before they start turning white.

The Persian Gulf is quite shallow and there vast temperature variations between winter and summer, going as low as 17°C and as high as 35°C.

“These are really interesting reefs. In the summer they are all white and then they return to how they were afterwards. Any other place if you see bleaching then that’s it,” explains Burt.

Last year, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) found that the Red Sea was warming faster than other water bodies, but the corals there were still relatively healthy. This has prompted the Red Sea Research Center at KAUST to build what will be the largest marine research station in the Red Sea to learn more about the corals there.

“The reefs here do offer hope for us and I hope we can start some collaborations with others moving in here to study them further,” said Burt during NYUAD’s 2nd Genomics and Systems Biology meeting taking place 14 – 16 February.

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