Studying how world’s last ‘coral refuge’ resists global warming

While much of the world’s corals are at serious risk, scientists have discovered that Red Sea corals seem to be resistant to global warming, and earlier this summer, they set out on a four-year expedition to learn more about why that is. 

UPDATE: Unfortunately, the first season’s work along the Sudanese coasts is now on hold. The sailboat Fleur de Passion, which left from Aqaba/Eilat towards Sudan on July 10, is stranded in Egypt after running aground in the southern Gulf of Aqaba. The four crew members and six coral experts, who are Swiss, French, Israeli and British, were taken to Sharm el-Sheikh. The boat will be towed to the port so damage can be assessed and repairs carried out as quickly as possible.

Fabiano D’Amato / Transnational Red Sea Center

When water temperatures rise, coral dies and millions of fish that depend on the coral for protection and food also perish. Over the past 30 years, 50% of the world’s corals have disappeared due to global warming, pollution and other destructive human activities, and only 10% are expected to survive beyond 2050. But there is a unique hope for the survival of at least one major reef ecosystem in the world. 

Recent studies showed that Red Sea corals are resistant to global warming because of their particular evolutionary history since the last Ice Age. Their survival is therefore possible, provided that the environmental pressure exerted by human activity in countries bordering the Red Sea is mitigated. Those threats could include oil pollution, sewage discharge, agricultural chemicals, plastic waste, overfishing, construction, desalination plants, and invasive species.

Israeli researcher Maoz Fine, who made the discovery of the coral resilience in 2017, hopes that pinpointing the ‘resilience’ genes might help other corals become more resilient to global warming. But collecting sufficient data for the Red Sea region is complicated by the region’s politics. Dr. Fine, who is co-directing the project, noted that it is about “bridging science and diplomacy for the future of corals.”

A multinational research centre was set up in Switzerland in 2019 to lead the study. Created at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) with support of the Swiss Confederation, the Transnational Red Sea Center aims to promote a regional approach to the research and preservation of the coral “refuge”. 

Swiss researchers will work individually with each country to place hundreds of monitors around the Red Sea, which will upload data in real time to a cloud-based database run by EPFL. The monitors will upload data points tracking things like temperature, current, and wind. Plans call for Fine to install the first sensors off the Eilat coast, the second batch off Aqaba in the fall, and there are hopes that a third group will be set up off the coast of Sudan.

Countries can choose to limit their participation to their own borders if they wish, and still allow the Swiss to act as a clearinghouse for the data so that the data is collected uniformly across the region.

Saying “no country can do this alone,” Prof. Anders Maibom, who is co-leading the expedition with Fine, warned that the collapse of coral reefs in tourism-dependent Egypt could have a serious effect on the country’s already frail economy. He said that while the current expedition had a specific time limit, the research center had a “timeline of decades,” during which it aimed to train young scientists in the region.

The expedition is planned to be carried out every summer from 2021 to 2024 when the water temperature in the region is at its highest, bringing together local and international scientists. The 33-meter-long Swiss sailboat, Fleur de Passion, will be the logistical platform for scientific work and the flagship for outreach activities at the regional and global level. They hope to progressively cover the 4,500 km coastline of the eight Red Sea countries: Egypt, Eritrea, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, and Djibouti.

The expedition has some key scientific priorities:

  • Establish the first ever Red Sea-wide coral reef ecosystem and bio- diversity ‘baseline’.
  • Quantitatively determine the resilience of 6-10 key coral species through systematic thermal stress testing.
  • Assess the environmental impact of socio-economic development and identify hotspots of environmental stress, today and in the future – along the shores of the Red Sea.
  • Systematically sample for water and air quality, as well as microplastics pollution.
  • Genetically analyze coral and environmental DNA (eDNA), shedding light on the unique evolution and biodiversity of Red Sea coral reefs in comparison with corals from the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and Great Barrier Reef (Australia). 
  • Use cutting-edge seascape genomics, i.e., the combination of genomic information with environmental mapping (incl. satellite remote sensing), to understand and predict the coral adaptation patterns on the scale of the entire Red Sea system.

Fine hopes that the Transnational Center can be a model for future research projects with countries in the area that might otherwise be loath to cooperate directly with Israel. “I think that’s the motivation of the Swiss, because they’re not exactly a place that’s super interested in corals,” he said. “They are looking at the idea of ‘diplomacy for science, science for diplomacy.’ This can really advance diplomacy in the area.”

“Everyone in the region is interested in conserving the corals,” Fine added. “It’s a really important thing to cooperate and to advance regional cooperation for science and the environment.”


Transnational Red Sea Center website.

Winds of peace fuel Israeli-led expedition to Sudan to save Red Sea coral reefs.Times of Israel, Jul 21, 2021

Israel to ally with Arab neighbors around Red Sea in bid to save world’s corals. Times of Israel, Jun. 7, 2019