Coral Reefs

, Volume 30, Issue 3, pp 607–619 | Cite as

Coral mortality associated with thermal fluctuations in the Phoenix Islands, 2002–2005

  • D. OburaEmail author
  • S. Mangubhai


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.


Coral bleaching Thermal stress Sea surface temperature Central Pacific Degree heating weeks Inter-annual variability 



This research would not have been possible without generous support from multiple donors and contributors to enable these three expeditions, through the New England Aquarium Global Marine Program’s Phoenix Islands project, and their collaboration with the Government of Kiribati. The manuscript has been greatly improved thanks to three anonymous reviewers and the editors. We acknowledge the support and assistance of T. Teroroko, G. Stone, and R. Barrel and C. Holloway of Nai’a Expeditions. We also acknowledge assistance by M. Jarumani for data analysis, NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch program for remote sensing data, and S. Donner.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CORDIO East AfricaBamburi, MombasaKenya
  2. 2.New England Aquarium, Central WharfBostonUSA
  3. 3.The Nature Conservancy, Indonesia Marine ProgramBaliIndonesia

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