Chaos in the Pacific's Coral reef bleaching cycle

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There is no simple explanation for the unusual increase in coral reef bleaching events that have been occurring on a global scale over the last 2 decades. Recent studies focusing on this problem reveal that mass bleaching events have a strong periodic component, arising every ~3-4 yr in step with the El Nino climatic phenomenon. To explore this possibility further, we examine a simple oceanographic-ecological model designed to simulate the warm and cool phases of the Pacific Ocean cycle and gauge its effect on local coral reefs. This allows us to identify causes for localized 'hot spots' in the ocean, whose high sea surface temperatures have disastrous consequences for corals. The underlying wave dynamics of the model lead to chaotic oscillations (every ~3-4 yr), which help explain the coexistence of both order and irregularity in the dynamics of mass bleaching. The model makes use of a temperature threshold mechanism-a bleaching event is triggered whenever temperature anomalies exceed a critical level. In a variable environment, the threshold mechanism is sensitive to background fluctuations, and their effects are studied by making use of a 'stochastic resonance' formulation. Global climate change and other trends in external background environmental conditions are all shown to strongly influence the distribution of mass coral bleaching events.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)447-459
Number of pages13
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1998


  • Bleaching
  • Chaos
  • Coral reef
  • El Nino
  • Stochastic resonance


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