Annual Termperature Anomaly Trends Correlate with Coral Reef Trajectory Across the Pacific

Event Name/Location

2013 Meeting of the Americas

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



Impacts of global change, Coral Reef Systems, Ecosystems, Structure, Dynamics, and Modeling, Population Dynamics and Ecology


The future survival of coral reefs depends on the envelope of critical climatic conditions determining the severity of impacts on the ecosystem. While coral health is strongly determined by extreme heat events, that lead to bleaching and often death, chronic “heat loading” may also disadvantage corals by making them more susceptible to, for example, diseases. On the other hand, it has been shown that coral living in hotter areas have higher bleaching thresholds and may be affected by less mortality at extreme events. This level at which heat anomalies lead to coral mortality varies widely across oceans, from ~31 deg C across the Caribbean to ~32 deg C in the Great Barrier Reef to 37.5 deg C in the Persian/Arabian Gulf. Thus, there clearly exists local adaptation and the extremes required to kill reefs strongly vary among regions. This could be be interpreted as suggesting that as long as bleaching temperatures are not reached, increased overall heat content expressed by a positive annual thermal anomaly, might actually foster coral resilience. Is there evidence for or against such an argument? Bleaching events have been occurring worldwide with variable recurrence and variable subsequent recovery. Despite demonstrated adaptation to higher-than-usual mean summer temperatures, reefs in the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea are on a declining trajectory. This coincides with consistent warming in the region. Mean annual anomalies of ocean temperature (since 1870) and atmospheric temperatures (since 1950) increase throughout the region. Since 1994 (Red Sea) and 1998 (southern Arabian Gulf) all mean annual anomalies have been positive and this period has coincided with repeated, severe bleaching events. In the Eastern Pacific (Galapagos and Easter Island), the trend of mean annual temperature anomalies has been declining and coral cover has been increasing. Thus, trends in coral cover and mean annual anomaly are negatively correlated in both regions. Despite strong impacts due to bleaching in 1983 and 1998, and increasing variance in anomalies (both positive and negative) the E-Pacific presently maintains an upward trend in coral cover and colony frequency. In the Red Sea , variance in anomalies increased but exclusively towards positive values. In the Gulf, variance declined towards stronger and only positive anomalies. In both regions, this raised thermal envelope is associated with reef decline. This is most dramatic in the Gulf, with six bleaching events since 1996, but also obvious in the Red Sea (bleaching in 1998, 2005 and 2010). Both Gulf and Red Sea suffer also from other mortality factors, such as diseases and predator outbreaks. Decline in reef health is therefore not uniquely linked to bleaching, but other mortality factors are also linked to changes in the thermal envelope. Chronic effects of increased average temperatures seem to define a reef trajectory more closely than the effects of individual, albeit strong, episodic disturbances.


Identifier: U53A-01

Section: Union

Session: Identifying and Quantifying Critical Climatic Conditions for Coral Reef Ecosystem Impacts II


0000-0002-6003-9324; F-8807-2011