Repeat bleaching of a central Pacific coral reef over the past six decades (1960–2016)

The oceans are warming and coral reefs are bleaching with increased frequency and severity, fueling concerns for their survival through this century. Yet in the central equatorial Pacific, some of the world’s most productive reefs regularly experience extreme heat associated with El Niño. Here we use skeletal signatures preserved in long-lived corals on Jarvis Island to evaluate the coral community response to multiple successive heatwaves since 1960. By tracking skeletal stress band formation through the 2015-16 El Nino, which killed 95% of Jarvis corals, we validate their utility as proxies of bleaching severity and show that 2015-16 was not the first catastrophic bleaching event on Jarvis. Since 1960, eight severe (>30% bleaching) and two moderate (<30% bleaching) events occurred, each coinciding with El Niño. While the frequency and severity of bleaching on Jarvis did not increase over this time period, 2015–16 was unprecedented in magnitude. The trajectory of recovery of this historically resilient ecosystem will provide critical insights into the potential for coral reef resilience in a warming world.

Barkley H. C., Cohen A. L., Mollica N. R., Brainard R. E., Rivera H. E., DeCarlo T. M., Lohmann G. P., Drenkard E. J., Alpert A. E., Young C. W., Vargas-Ángel B., Lino K. C., Oliver T. A., Pietro K. R. & Luu V. H., 2018. Repeat bleaching of a central Pacific coral reef over the past six decades (1960–2016). Communications Biology 1: 177. doi: 10.1038/s42003-018-0183-7. Article.

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