Coral mortality associated with thermal fluctuations in the Phoenix Islands, 2002–2005
The Phoenix Islands (Republic of Kiribati, 172–170°W and 2.5–5°S) experience intra- and inter-annual sea surface temperature variability of ≈2°C and have few local anthropogenic impacts. From July 2002, a thermal stress event occurred, which peaked at 21 Degree Heating Weeks (DHW) in January 2003 and persisted for 4 years. Such thermal stress was greater than any thermal event reported in the coral reef literature. Reef surveys were conducted in July 2000, June 2002, and May 2005, for six of the eight islands. Sampling was stratified by exposure (windward, leeward, and lagoon) and depth (5, 10, 15, and 25 m). The thermal stress event caused mass coral mortality, and coral cover declined by approximately 60% between 2002 and 2005. However, mortality varied among sites (12–100%) and among islands (42–79%) and varied in accordance with the presence of a lagoon, island size, and windward vs. leeward exposure. Leeward reefs experienced the highest and most consistent decline in coral cover. Island size and the presence of a lagoon showed positive correlations with coral mortality, most likely because of the longer water residence time enhancing heating. Windward reefs showed cooler conditions than leeward reefs. Recently dead corals were observed at depths >35 m on windward and >45 m on leeward reefs. Between-island variation in temperature had no effect on between-island variation in coral mortality. Mortality levels reported here were comparable to those reported for the most extreme thermal stress events of 9–10 DHW in other regions. These results highlight the high degree of acclimation and/or adaptation of the corals in the Phoenix Islands to their local temperature regime, and their consequent vulnerability to anomalous events. Moreover, the results suggest the need to adjust thermal stress calculations to reflect local temperature variation.