How glacial runoff from Mt. Kilimanjaro is preserving a precious coral reef

For years, marine biologists have been searching high and low for coral refuges—areas where coral reefs have the best chance to survive warming waters due to climate change. Recently, scientists discovered an incredibly rich coral refuge off the coast of Kenya and Tanzania that is thriving, despite warning events that have killed neighboring coral reefs.

The coral refuge is reportedly teeming with spinner dolphins as well as rare species such as coelacanths—a species of fish that was once believed to be extinct. The scientists also report that the refuge is home to dugongs, a rare and elusive marine mammal that is similar to a manatee.

So, how is it possible for this coral refuge to exist when nearby reefs are suffering from coral bleaching events due to warming waters? The answer, believe it or not, is Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The coral refuge stretches 50 miles south of Mombasa, in Kenya to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, which is home to the famous Kilimanjaro and Usambara mountains. Apparently, the glacial runoff from these mountains feeds into the ocean and has formed deep channels over the course of thousands of years, thus providing cool water to protect the corals from episodic warming events like El Niño.

“Our study shows that while warming waters may devastate surrounding reefs, this area could become an incredibly important sanctuary where marine species big and small will flock to find refuge from climate change,” said Tim McClanahan, the author of the study published this month in Advances in Marine Biology. “If well protected, this key transboundary marine ecosystem will remain a jewel of biodiversity for the entire east African coast.”

This isn’t the only story we’ve published about coral reefs in recent times. Just last week, we wrote about the first-ever map of every coral reef in the Caribbean.

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