An evaluation of the effect of recent temperature variability on the prediction of coral bleaching events


  • Corresponding Editor: N. A. J. Graham.


Over the past 30 years, warm thermal disturbances have become commonplace on coral reefs worldwide. These periods of anomalous sea surface temperature (SST) can lead to coral bleaching, a breakdown of the symbiosis between the host coral and symbiotic dinoflagellates which reside in coral tissue. The onset of bleaching is typically predicted to occur when the SST exceeds a local climatological maximum by 1°C for a month or more. However, recent evidence suggests that the threshold at which bleaching occurs may depend on thermal history.

This study uses global SST data sets (HadISST and NOAA AVHRR) and mass coral bleaching reports (from Reefbase) to examine the effect of historical SST variability on the accuracy of bleaching prediction. Two variability-based bleaching prediction methods are developed from global analysis of seasonal and interannual SST variability. The first method employs a local bleaching threshold derived from the historical variability in maximum annual SST to account for spatial variability in past thermal disturbance frequency. The second method uses a different formula to estimate the local climatological maximum to account for the low seasonality of SST in the tropics. The new prediction methods are tested against the common globally fixed threshold method using the observed bleaching reports.

The results find that estimating the bleaching threshold from local historical SST variability delivers the highest predictive power, but also a higher rate of Type I errors. The second method has the lowest predictive power globally, though regional analysis suggests that it may be applicable in equatorial regions. The historical data analysis suggests that the bleaching threshold may have appeared to be constant globally because the magnitude of interannual variability in maximum SST is similar for many of the world's coral reef ecosystems. For example, the results show that a SST anomaly of 1°C is equivalent to 1.73–2.94 standard deviations of the maximum monthly SST for two-thirds of the world's coral reefs. Coral reefs in the few regions that experience anomalously high interannual SST variability like the equatorial Pacific could prove critical to understanding how coral communities acclimate or adapt to frequent and/or severe thermal disturbances.