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PeerJ. 2019 Aug 12;7:e7473. doi: 10.7717/peerj.7473. eCollection 2019.

An enigmatic decoupling between heat stress and coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.

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Red Sea Research Center, Division of Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Thuwal, Saudi Arabia.
Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, University of Western Australia, Crawley, WA, Australia.
Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, QLD, Australia.


Ocean warming threatens the functioning of coral reef ecosystems by inducing mass coral bleaching and mortality events. The link between temperature and coral bleaching is now well-established based on observations that mass bleaching events usually occur when seawater temperatures are anomalously high. However, times of high heat stress but without coral bleaching are equally important because they can inform an understanding of factors that regulate temperature-induced bleaching. Here, we investigate the absence of mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) during austral summer 2004. Using four gridded sea surface temperature data products, validated with in situ temperature loggers, we demonstrate that the summer of 2004 was among the warmest summers of the satellite era (1982-2017) on the GBR. At least half of the GBR experienced temperatures that were high enough to initiate bleaching in other years, yet mass bleaching was not reported during 2004. The absence of bleaching is not fully explained by wind speed or cloud cover. Rather, 2004 is clearly differentiated from bleaching years by the slow speed of the East Australian Current (EAC) offshore of the GBR. An anomalously slow EAC during summer 2004 may have dampened the upwelling of nutrient-rich waters onto the GBR shelf, potentially mitigating bleaching due to the lower susceptibility of corals to heat stress in low-nutrient conditions. Although other factors such as irradiance or acclimatization may have played a role in the absence of mass bleaching, 2004 remains a key case study for demonstrating the dynamic nature of coral responses to marine heatwaves.


Climate change; Coral bleaching; Coral reefs; Heatwaves; Sea surface temperature

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