Marine protected areas (MPAs) are a primary management tool for mitigating threats to marine biodiversity1,2. MPAs and the species they protect, however, are increasingly being impacted by climate change. Here we show that, despite local protections, the warming associated with continued business-as-usual emissions (RCP8.5)3 will likely result in further habitat and species losses throughout low-latitude and tropical MPAs4,5. With continued business-as-usual emissions, mean sea-surface temperatures within MPAs are projected to increase 0.035 °C per year and warm an additional 2.8 °C by 2100. Under these conditions, the time of emergence (the year when sea-surface temperature and oxygen concentration exceed natural variability) is mid-century in 42% of 309 no-take marine reserves. Moreover, projected warming rates and the existing ‘community thermal safety margin’ (the inherent buffer against warming based on the thermal sensitivity of constituent species) both vary among ecoregions and with latitude. The community thermal safety margin will be exceeded by 2050 in the tropics and by 2150 for many higher latitude MPAs. Importantly, the spatial distribution of emergence is stressor-specific. Hence, rearranging MPAs to minimize exposure to one stressor could well increase exposure to another. Continued business-as-usual emissions will likely disrupt many marine ecosystems, reducing the benefits of MPAs.

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Change history

  • 23 May 2018

    In the version of this Letter originally published, the x axes titles of Fig. 3 erroneously read ‘Latitude’; they should have read ‘Longitude’. This has been corrected in the online versions of the Letter.


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We thank M. Ruddy for assistance with coding and data analysis, and for preparing Fig. 1. This research was supported by the US National Science Foundation (OCE-1535007 to R.B.A. and OCE-1737071 to J.F.B.). C.C. was supported by National Science Foundation grant OCE-1657633 to R. van Woesik. This is contribution 191 from the Institute for Research on Global Climate Change at the Florida Institute of Technology.

Author information


  1. Department of Biology, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, USA

    • John F. Bruno
  2. Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK

    • Amanda E. Bates
  3. Department of Ocean Sciences, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, NL, Canada

    • Amanda E. Bates
  4. Department of Biological Sciences, Florida Institute of Technology, Melbourne, FL, USA

    • Chris Cacciapaglia
    •  & Richard B. Aronson
  5. Marine Conservation Institute, Seattle, WA, USA

    • Elizabeth P. Pike
  6. Polar Bears International, Bozeman, MT, USA

    • Steven C. Amstrup
  7. Department of Zoology and Physiology, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY, USA

    • Steven C. Amstrup
  8. NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, Ocean Chemistry and Ecosystems Division, Miami, FL, USA

    • Ruben van Hooidonk
  9. Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami, Miami, FL, USA

    • Ruben van Hooidonk
  10. National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, UK

    • Stephanie A. Henson


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J.F.B., R.B.A. and S.C.A. conceived the study. J.F.B., A.E.B., C.C. and S.A.H. performed the analysis. J.F.B., A.E.B., S.A.H. and R.B.A. interpreted the results. J.F.B., R.B.A. and A.E.B. wrote the manuscript, with substantial assistance from the other authors. A.E.B., E.P.P., R.v.H. and S.A.H. provided datasets.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to John F. Bruno.

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    Supplementary tables S1 and S2, Supplementary figures S1-S4

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