Unprecedented mass bleaching and loss of coral across 12° of latitude in Western Australia in 2010-11

PLoS One. 2012;7(12):e51807. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051807. Epub 2012 Dec 17.

Abstract

Background: Globally, coral bleaching has been responsible for a significant decline in both coral cover and diversity over the past two decades. During the summer of 2010-11, anomalous large-scale ocean warming induced unprecedented levels of coral bleaching accompanied by substantial storminess across more than 12° of latitude and 1200 kilometers of coastline in Western Australia (WA).

Methodology/principal findings: Extreme La-Niña conditions caused extensive warming of waters and drove considerable storminess and cyclonic activity across WA from October 2010 to May 2011. Satellite-derived sea surface temperature measurements recorded anomalies of up to 5°C above long-term averages. Benthic surveys quantified the extent of bleaching at 10 locations across four regions from tropical to temperate waters. Bleaching was recorded in all locations across regions and ranged between 17% (±5.5) in the temperate Perth region, to 95% (±3.5) in the Exmouth Gulf of the tropical Ningaloo region. Coincident with high levels of bleaching, three cyclones passed in close proximity to study locations around the time of peak temperatures. Follow-up surveys revealed spatial heterogeneity in coral cover change with four of ten locations recording significant loss of coral cover. Relative decreases ranged between 22%-83.9% of total coral cover, with the greatest losses in the Exmouth Gulf.

Conclusions/significance: The anomalous thermal stress of 2010-11 induced mass bleaching of corals along central and southern WA coral reefs. Significant coral bleaching was observed at multiple locations across the tropical-temperate divide spanning more than 1200 km of coastline. Resultant spatially patchy loss of coral cover under widespread and high levels of bleaching and cyclonic activity, suggests a degree of resilience for WA coral communities. However, the spatial extent of bleaching casts some doubt over hypotheses suggesting that future impacts to coral reefs under forecast warming regimes may in part be mitigated by southern thermal refugia.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anthozoa / growth & development*
  • Ecosystem
  • Heat-Shock Response*
  • Hot Temperature / adverse effects*
  • Seawater
  • Stress, Physiological / physiology*
  • Time Factors
  • Western Australia

Grant support

This study was funded by the Department of Environment and Conservation WA, the Department of Fisheries WA, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the Western Australian Marine Science Institution and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.