C2.1.2 Environmental thresholds and observed coral bleaching (Chapter 6, Box 6.1)
Coral bleaching, due to the loss of symbiotic algae and/or their pigments, has been observed on many reefs since the early 1980s. It may have previously occurred, but has gone unrecorded. Slight paling occurs naturally in response to seasonal increases in sea surface temperature (SST) and solar radiation. Corals bleach white in response to anomalously high SST (~1°C above average seasonal maxima, often combined with high solar radiation). Whereas some corals recover their natural colour when environmental conditions ameliorate, their growth rate and reproductive ability may be significantly reduced for a substantial period. If bleaching is prolonged, or if SST exceeds 2°C above average seasonal maxima, corals die. Branching species appear more susceptible than massive corals (Douglas, 2003).
Major bleaching events were observed in 1982-1983, 1987-1988 and 1994-1995 (Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999). Particularly severe bleaching occurred in 1998 (Figure C2.1), associated with pronounced El Niño events in one of the hottest years on record (Lough, 2000; Bruno et al., 2001). Since 1998 there have been several extensive bleaching events. For example, in 2002 bleaching occurred on much of the Great Barrier Reef (Berkelmans et al., 2004; see C2.2.3) and elsewhere. Reefs in the eastern Caribbean experienced a massive bleaching event in late 2005, another of the hottest years on record. On many Caribbean reefs, bleaching exceeded that of 1998 in both extent and mortality (Figure C2.1), and reefs are in decline as a result of the synergistic effects of multiple stresses (Gardner et al., 2005; McWilliams et al., 2005; see C2.3.1). There is considerable variability in coral susceptibility and recovery to elevated SST in both time and space, and in the incidence of mortality (Webster et al., 1999; Wilkinson, 2002; Obura, 2005).
Global climate model results imply that thermal thresholds will be exceeded more frequently, with the consequence that bleaching will recur more often than reefs can sustain (Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999, 2004; Donner et al., 2005), perhaps almost annually on some reefs in the next few decades (Sheppard, 2003; Hoegh-Guldberg, 2005). If the threshold remains unchanged, more frequent bleaching and mortality seems inevitable (see Figure C2.2a), but with local variations due to different susceptibilities to factors such as water depth. Recent preliminary studies lend some support to the adaptive bleaching hypothesis, indicating that the coral host may be able to adapt or acclimatise as a result of expelling one clade of symbiotic algae but recovering with a new one (termed ‘shuffling’, see C2.2.1), creating ‘new’ ecospecies with different temperature tolerances (Coles and Brown, 2003; Buddemeier et al., 2004; Little et al., 2004; Rowan, 2004; Obura, 2005). Adaptation or acclimatisation might result in an increase in the threshold temperature at which bleaching occurs (Figure C2.2b). The extent to which the thermal threshold could increase with warming of more than a couple of degrees remains very uncertain, as are the effects of additional stresses, such as reduced carbonate supersaturation in surface waters (see C2.2.1) and non-climate stresses (see C2.3.1). Corals and other calcifying organisms (e.g., molluscs, foraminifers) remain extremely susceptible to increases in SST. Bleaching events reported in recent years have already impacted many reefs, and their more frequent recurrence is very likely to further reduce both coral cover and diversity on reefs over the next few decades.