Disturbance gradients on inshore and offshore coral reefs caused by a severe tropical cyclone

Fabricius, Katharina E., Glenn DeĀ’ath, Marji Lee Puotinen, Terry Done, Timothy F. Cooper, Scott C. Burgess

Limnol. Oceanogr., 53(2), 2008, 690-704 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2008.53.2.0690

ABSTRACT: Tropical storms (cyclones, hurricanes, or typhoons) are the most severe form of mechanical disturbance of coral reefs. In 2005, severe tropical cyclone Ingrid crossed the far northern Great Barrier Reef, a region that had not been affected by a major disturbance for several decades, and where benthic data had been collected before the cyclone crossed. This storm provided a unique opportunity to improve understanding of the extent and type of damage inflicted on inshore and offshore coral reefs along a gradient of wind speeds. Modeled maximum wind speeds ranged from 46 m s-1 (equivalent to category 4) near the path to 22 m s-1 (category 1) ~70 km to either side of the path. Surveys of 82 sites on 32 reefs along the wind gradient showed that the types and intensity of disturbance were well explained by local maximum wind speed, and by spatial and biotic factors. While offshore reefs had the deepest depth of damage, inshore reefs had the greatest rates of coral breakage and dislodgement. On a severely affected inshore reef, hard coral cover decreased about 800%, taxonomic richness decreased 250%, the density of coral recruits decreased by 30%, while massive coral cover remained unaltered. Maximum winds <28 m s-1 for <12 h inflicted only minor damage on any reef, but winds >33 m s-1 and >40 m s-1 caused catastrophic damage on inshore and offshore reefs, respectively. Observations from this cyclone were used to predict potential changes in storm-related coral loss under altered cyclone-intensity scenarios.

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