Improved predictions of coral bleaching using seasonal baselines and higher spatial resolution

Weeks, S. J., K. R. N. Anthony, A. Bakun, G. C. Feldman, O. Hoegh-Guldberg

Limnol. Oceanogr., 53(4), 2008, 1369-1375 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2008.53.4.1369

ABSTRACT: Coral bleaching spread across the southern Great Barrier Reef in January 2006, after sea temperatures reached climatological summer maxima 2 months before normal. Current satellite-derived warning systems were unable to detect severe bleaching conditions in the region because of their use of a constant thermal threshold (summer maximum monthly mean) and low spatial resolution (50 km). Here it is shown that such problems can be ameliorated if the thermal threshold is adjusted for seasonal variation and a 4-km spatial resolution is used. We develop a seasonally and spatially improved thermal threshold for coral bleaching on the basis of a weekly climatology of sea surface temperatures extending from austral spring to late summer, and apply the method to two case-study sites. At both sites, and in particular at the nearshore site that was undetected by the 50-km satellite product, the seasonally adjusted thermal threshold produced a greatly improved consistency between accumulated heating and bleaching severity. The application of thermal stress algorithms that reflect the long-term mean pattern in seasonal variation allows coral bleaching to be forecast with higher precision.

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