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Causes and consequences of the 2017 coral bleaching event in the southern Persian/Arabian Gulf

Abstract

Coral reefs of the Persian/Arabian Gulf were the last to succumb to the effects of the global-scale mass coral bleaching event that began in 2015. This study examines the causes and consequences of the 2017 bleaching event on eight reefs located across > 350 km of the southern basin of the Gulf. Using a combination of 5 yr (2013–2017) of reef-based temperature observations, local meteorological data and water column modeling, we show that 2017 was characterized by an extended period of mid-summer calm when winds rarely exceeded breeze conditions, reducing evaporative heat loss and inducing dramatic warming compared with non-bleaching years (2013–2016). Reef-bottom temperatures in the Gulf in 2017 were among the hottest on record, with mean daily maxima averaging 35.9 ± 0.1 °C across sites, with hourly temperatures reaching as high as 37.7 °C. Across the southern Gulf, corals spent nearly 2 months (mean 55.1 ± 3.9 d above bleaching temperatures and nearly 2 weeks above lethal temperatures (11.8 ± 2.4 d), substantially longer than in the non-bleaching years (2013–2016) and equating with 5.5 °C-weeks of thermal stress as degree heating weeks. As a result, 94.3% of corals bleached, and two-thirds of corals were lost to mortality between April and September 2017. Mortality continued after peak bleaching, and by April 2018 coral cover averaged just 7.5% across the southern basin, representing an overall loss of nearly three-quarters of coral (73%) in 1 yr. This mass mortality did not cause dramatic shifts in community composition as earlier bleaching events had removed most sensitive taxa. An exception was the already rare Acropora which were locally extirpated in summer 2017. Given the increasing frequency of mass bleaching in the Gulf and the above global rates of regional warming, the capacity for recovery and the prognosis for the future of Gulf reefs are not optimistic.

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Acknowledgements

This manuscript is dedicated to the memory of Edwin Grandcourt who was a strong proponent of data-driven management at the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi; his love for Abu Dhabi’s marine environment will be fondly remembered. The authors would like to thank Grace Vaughan and Dain McParland of New York University Abu Dhabi as well as Ibrahim Bugla of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi for their tireless support in fieldwork and temperature logger collections. Appreciation is extended to the management of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi for provision of research permits to allow this study.

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Correspondence to John A. Burt or Francesco Paparella.

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Topic Editor Morgan S. Pratchett

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Suppl. Fig. 1.

Sea-bottom temperatures at each of the eight reef sites in summer 2013 based on simulated and observed data, overlaid against surface wind speed (EPS 1624 kb)

Suppl. Fig. 2.

Sea-bottom temperatures at each of the eight reef sites in summer 2014 based on simulated and observed data, overlaid against surface wind speed (EPS 1611 kb)

Suppl. Fig. 3.

Sea-bottom temperatures at each of the eight reef sites in summer 2015 based on simulated and observed data, overlaid against surface wind speed (EPS 1623 kb)

Suppl. Fig. 4.

Sea-bottom temperatures at each of the eight reef sites in summer 2016 based on simulated data, overlaid against surface wind speed. Observed data were unavailable for 2016 due to logger malfunctions (EPS 1583 kb)

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Burt, J.A., Paparella, F., Al-Mansoori, N. et al. Causes and consequences of the 2017 coral bleaching event in the southern Persian/Arabian Gulf. Coral Reefs 38, 567–589 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-019-01767-y

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Keywords

  • Coral reef
  • Bleaching
  • Threshold
  • DHW
  • Wind
  • Persian Gulf
  • Arabian Gulf