The future of marine connectivity under climate change

Although water covers over two-thirds of the globe, connectivity in the world’s oceans remains much less discussed than connectivity on land.  With oceans expected to continue warming over the next several decades, predicting how connectivity will change is just as critical for marine environments as for terrestrial ones.

Two new studies in Global Change Biology have added to our understanding of how marine connectivity might be altered under climate change.  The results provide insight for how managers and conservation practitioners might manage marine protected areas (MPAs) under future climates.

In the first study, Coleman et al. look at 6 MPAs off the coast of eastern Australia and simulate dispersal for kelp (Ecklonia radiata) and sea urchins (Centrostephanus rodgersii), two key ecosystem species that underpin much of the biodiversity in the region.  The good news is that, based on their simulations, overall connectivity for MPAs will not change much, or at least experience no more variability that what is normally seen over several years.  However, smaller-scale connectivity (such as between pairs of MPAs) is much more subject to change, for example in whether connectivity will be altered poleward vs. equatorward.

In the second study, García Molinos et al. develop a new method for using climate analogues that allows for more ecological interpretability.  They then apply this method to marine regions in Japan and assess future stability, connectivity, and their implications for the current MPA network.  They find that while the majority of Japanese waters will shift to climate conditions never experienced before, areas of high connectivity will remain along the coast that experience high human impact but are also part of the MPA network.

The take-away message from both studies is that marine protected areas can act as valuable stepping stones in maintaining connectivity, but that their functions and the relationships between them are likely to be altered under climate change.  New tools are available for those who want to get more accurate predictions of what marine ecosystems will look like in the future.  Not every region with MPAs will respond the same, and improving estimates of future scenarios is the best way to ensure that connectivity is maintained in the long term.


Coleman, M. A., P. Cetina‐Heredia, M. Roughan, M. Feng, E. Sebille, and B. P. Kelaher. 2017. Anticipating changes to future connectivity within a network of marine protected areas. Global Change Biology. DOI:10.1111/gcb.13634

García Molinos, J., S. Takao, N. H. Kumagai, E. S. Poloczanska, M. T. Burrows, M. Fujii, and H. Yamano. 2017. Improving the interpretability of climate landscape metrics: an ecological risk analysis of Japan’s Marine Protected Areas. Global Change Biology. DOI: 10.1111/gcb.13665.

Merging paradigms of connectivity in marine ecology (October 2016)

2017-03-22T09:57:15+00:00 March 21st, 2017|

About the Author:

Heather Cayton
Heather Cayton is the Managing Director of and a Research Technician at North Carolina State University. She received her B.S. from the University of Virginia and her M.S. from Virginia Tech, and has spent the past eight years studying corridors and rare butterflies in North Carolina.