June 5 (UPI) -- New research suggests bigger, better-protected marine reserves can help protect the planet and its oceans from the negative effects of global warming.
Today, just 3.5 percent of the ocean is designated as a marine preserve. Only 1.5 percent of the ocean is well-protected from resource exploitation.
If the ecological benefits of marine preserves are to be realized, researchers suggest more of the planet's oceans must be protected.
"Marine reserves cannot halt or completely offset the growing impacts of climate change,"Jane Lubchenco, former NOAA administrator and a professor at Oregon State University, said in a news release. "But they can make marine ecosystems more resilient to changes and, in some cases, help slow down the rate of climate change."
The direct environmental benefits of marine preserves -- including species abundance and diversity -- is well-established.
To determine whether marine preserves might also guard against the ill effects of climate change, researchers at Oregon State surveyed the results of 145 peer-reviewed studies. Scientists teased out the reported effects of marine protections on five symptoms of global warming: ocean acidification, rising sea levels, extreme weather, oxygen loss and shifts in the distribution of species.
Their analysis -- detailed in the journal PNAS -- suggests marine preserves can mitigate all five symptoms.
"It was soon quite clear that they [marine preserves] can offer the ocean ecosystem and people critical resilience benefits to rapid climate change," said lead researcher Callum Roberts, from the University of York.
The longest-established preserves with the strongest protections against fishing and mineral extraction proved the strongest buffers against global warming. Researchers also found coastal preserves -- including different kinds of wetlands -- can aid carbon storage and protect against extreme weather.
"Unfortunately, these ecosystems are some of the most threatened coastal areas and have experienced substantial reductions in the past several decades," Lubchenco said. "Wetland protection should be seen as a key element in achieving greater resilience for coast communities."
Scientists suggest marine preserves bolster genetic diversity among marine species, serve as a haven for vulnerable species and offer a place where plants and animals can adapt to environmental changes.
"We have seen how marine reserves can be a haven for some species that are under duress from over-fishing or habitat loss, and as a 'stepping-stone' for other species that are recolonizing or moving into new areas," Lubchenco said. "In short, reserves are one of the most powerful tools in our adaptation toolbox. Reserves enhance the resilience of marine ecosystems, and thus our resilience."
Globally, nations have pledged to protect 10 percent of the planet's waters by 2020, but governments must setting aside marine preserves more aggressive such a pledge is to be fulfilled. The latest research suggests bigger, better marine preserves offer the best chance of protecting marine ecosystems from climate change.