Oceanic differences in coral-bleaching responses to marine heatwaves

Tom Shlesinger, Robert van Woesik*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Anomalously high ocean temperatures have increased in frequency, intensity, and duration over the last several decades because of greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming and marine heatwaves. Reef-building corals are sensitive to such temperature anomalies that commonly lead to coral bleaching, mortality, and changes in community structure. Yet, despite these overarching effects, there are geographical differences in thermal regimes, evolutionary histories, and past disturbances that may lead to different bleaching responses of corals within and among oceans. Here we examined the overall bleaching responses of corals in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans, using both a spatially explicit Bayesian mixed-effects model and a deep-learning neural-network model. We used a 40-year global dataset encompassing 23,288 coral-reef surveys at 11,058 sites in 88 countries, from 1980 to 2020. Focusing on ocean-wide differences we assessed the relationships between the percentage of bleached corals and different temperature-related metrics alongside a suite of environmental variables. We found that while high sea-surface temperatures were consistently, and strongly, related to coral bleaching within all oceans, there were clear geographical differences in the relationships between coral bleaching and most environmental variables. For instance, there was an increase in coral bleaching with depth in the Atlantic Ocean whereas the opposite was observed in the Indian Ocean, and no clear trend could be seen in the Pacific Ocean. The standard deviation of thermal-stress anomalies was negatively related to coral bleaching in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but not in the Indian Ocean. Globally, coral bleaching has progressively occurred at higher temperatures over the last four decades within the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans, although, again, there were differences among the three oceans. Together, such patterns highlight that historical circumstances and geographical differences in oceanographic conditions play a central role in contemporary coral-bleaching responses.

Original languageEnglish
Article number162113
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - 1 May 2023
Externally publishedYes


FundersFunder number
National Science FoundationOCE 2048319, OCE 1829393


    • Bayesian analysis
    • Coral bleaching
    • Coral reefs
    • Deep-learning neural-network model
    • Global warming
    • Spatially explicit model


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