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More than 90 per cent of shallow-water corals on Indian Ocean reefs died because of sea warming in the wake of El Niño in 1998. A similar catastrophe may be just 10 to 15 years away, according to new research — much sooner than previously thought.

The prediction is particularly significant because millions of people in the region rely on these reefs for their livelihoods.

In this week’s Nature, Charles Sheppard of the University of Warwick, United Kingdom, reports that he has created a sophisticated model of future coral mortality by combining historical and predictive data on sea warming for more than 30 sites in the Indian Ocean.

The model predicts that locations that undergo the highest rises in sea surface temperatures will not necessarily suffer the worst coral destruction. It also suggests the world's poorest countries will be at risk of the most immediate effects.

The corals in these areas may not have enough time to recover from the 1998 event before being hit by another wave of mortality, he warns.

Link to research paper by Charles Sheppard in Nature

Reference: Nature 425, 294 (2003)