Predicting coral bleaching hotspots: the role of regional variability in thermal stress and potential adaptation rates
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Sea surface temperature fields (1870–2100) forced by CO2-induced climate change under the IPCC SRES A1B CO2 scenario, from three World Climate Research Programme Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 3 (WCRP CMIP3) models (CCSM3, CSIRO MK 3.5, and GFDL CM 2.1), were used to examine how coral sensitivity to thermal stress and rates of adaption affect global projections of coral-reef bleaching. The focus of this study was two-fold, to: (1) assess how the impact of Degree-Heating-Month (DHM) thermal stress threshold choice affects potential bleaching predictions and (2) examine the effect of hypothetical adaptation rates of corals to rising temperature. DHM values were estimated using a conventional threshold of 1°C and a variability-based threshold of 2σ above the climatological maximum Coral adaptation rates were simulated as a function of historical 100-year exposure to maximum annual SSTs with a dynamic rather than static climatological maximum based on the previous 100 years, for a given reef cell. Within CCSM3 simulations, the 1°C threshold predicted later onset of mild bleaching every 5 years for the fraction of reef grid cells where 1°C > 2σ of the climatology time series of annual SST maxima (1961–1990). Alternatively, DHM values using both thresholds, with CSIRO MK 3.5 and GFDL CM 2.1 SSTs, did not produce drastically different onset timing for bleaching every 5 years. Across models, DHMs based on 1°C thermal stress threshold show the most threatened reefs by 2100 could be in the Central and Western Equatorial Pacific, whereas use of the variability-based threshold for DHMs yields the Coral Triangle and parts of Micronesia and Melanesia as bleaching hotspots. Simulations that allow corals to adapt to increases in maximum SST drastically reduce the rates of bleaching. These findings highlight the importance of considering the thermal stress threshold in DHM estimates as well as potential adaptation models in future coral bleaching projections.