, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp 155-162

Response of Hawaiian and other Indo-Pacific reef corals to elevated temperature

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Abstract

Loss of symbiotic zooxanthellae, or “bleaching” is one of the first visible signs of thermal stress. Critical threshold temperatures for coral bleaching vary geographically, but can be expressed universally as fixed increments relative to the historical mean local summer maximum. Bleaching can be induced by short-term exposure (i.e. 1–2 days) at temperature elevations of 3°C to 4°C above normal summer ambient or by long-term exposure (i.e. several weeks) at elevations of 1°C to 2°C. Corals in both tropical and subtropical locations live at temperatures close to their lethal limits during the summer months. Temperature elevations above summer ambient, but still below the bleaching threshold, can impair growth and reproduction. Temperature and light interact synergistically; high light accelerates bleaching caused by elevated temperature. Bleaching susceptibility is correlated with respiration rate. Any factor that increases respiration (such as high incident light) accelerates bleaching at higher temperatures. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a detrimental factor associated with solar radiation. Increased UV due to thinning of the earth's protective ozone layer may aggravate bleaching and mortality caused by global warming. A warming trend in Hawaiian waters has been observed over the past decade. In 1986, 1987 and 1988 Hawaiian corals were perilously close to their bleaching threshold during the summer months, and localized bleachings did occur. In some cases, local warming of surface water on shallow reef flats exceeded this threshold temperature and caused localized coral bleaching. In other cases, heating of large mesoscale eddies in the lee of the larger islands apparently caused wide-scale bleaching of the most sensitive coral species (Pocillopora meandrina) to depths of 20 m. A continuation of the warming trend in Hawaii would lead to mass bleachings similar to those observed recently in other geographic locations.