I live in New England, so naturally weather is a top conversation topic. We are in the hot, sweaty, doggiest days of summer right now (a personal favorite of mine, though I know I’m in the minority here). It’s impossible NOT to superimpose this conversation about weather with one of climate. After all, almost annually now, we break global records for hottest year on record. So – yes, it’s hot, and perhaps (at least on average), hotter than it’s ever been.

wilted sunflower
Even sunflowers wilt in the heat of New England summers

Now, imagine the equator.

Steady, stable, 12 hours of daylight, no major swings in season. But yes, it’s HOT there too, and hotter than it was. Last Fall/Winter, the Equatorial Pacific experienced a very intense El Nino, which prompted NOAA to declare the 3rd ever global bleaching event. Despite the lofty title, this is not good news. Coral bleaching, simply put, is when corals turn white. It’s a sign of stress whereby the essential coral symbionts dissociate from the coral itself. When bleaching occurs, these photosynthetic symbionts can no longer turn sunlight into energy, and the coral starts to starve. Left long enough without its symbionts, and most corals will starve to death. High seawater temperatures are one of the key catalysts of coral bleaching.

So, in 2015-2016, coral bleaching was reported from around the globe. Some places, like Palmyra Atoll or Hawaii, bleached and then recovered without much damage. Other places, like Jarvis or Kiritimati Atoll, experienced almost total mortality.

divers swim over bleached corals
Coral bleaching in the Phoenix Islands in Sept 2015. Photo credit: Craig Cook

At the recent “Coral Reef Olympics” (the International Coral Reef Symposium) in Honolulu, HI, the bleaching and death toll from around the globe was tallied. The Symposium focused on bridges between science and policy – a surefire sign that science alone is not sufficient to save reefs – we need action. And these are scary times – coral reefs as a whole are nowhere near their former glory, though there are still spots that are defiantly thriving and alive – reminding us of what we are working towards; keeping our baselines of what a coral reef SHOULD like honest.

And the Phoenix Islands?? Well, until now, we didn’t know. Our team was on-site in September 2015, as the El Niño was still rising and bleaching was just starting. The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) has all the conservation action in place — fully protected as of 2015. There is no fishing, coastal degradation, disease, destruction, sedimentation, tourism, sunscreen, or other issues that plague coral reefs in more accessible locations. But, PIPA was also geographically in a tough spot — where the equator meets the international dateline, these reefs are positioned near the hottest spots in the Pacific. Indeed, they bleached in 2002-03, and again in 2010. 

So, until now, we were all at the edge of our seats. The satellite projections of temperature in the region was discouraging – it was HOT there. Reports from Jarvis and Kiritimati were terrifying. And so imagine our surprise, relief, and joy to discover that PIPA was still alive?!!??!

Acroporids in PIPA
Living corals in the Kanton Lagoon - Summer 2016. Photo credit: Adrienne Breef-Pilz

It was joy felt around the world. Scientists across the globe are using PIPA as a climate reference site, and have come to know and love these reefs through their scientific pursuits. My inbox is full of digital “high fives” at the survival of PIPA. 

And also questions – why? How did this reef survive when the odds were so bleak? Well, we won’t know for sure until we spend months poring over the data. But my initial answer is this: “luck favors the prepared”. In terms of preparation, PIPA is among the lucky few reefs who are as well-prepared as possible to buffer and mitigate against stress events — they are fully, wholly, 100% protected from all threats except climate change. And on top of that preparation, they got a little lucky. These reefs were on the edge of the El Nino rather than the epicenter, and their past history of recent bleaching may have conferred some resilience to the remaining population. Had PIPA been more disturbed or stressed, it may not have been as lucky. 

The question that everyone wants to know is whether conservation works as a mitigation strategy against climate change. The answer is complex. Even the best protected reefs can get unlucky and experience stress and mortality if the perfect storm hits. And even the worst reefs might be spared the perfect storm. But in my experience, the best answer is simply that “luck favors the prepared”. Let’s prepare every reef as much as possible, and then hope for a little luck.

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