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Coral reef annihilation, persistence and recovery at Earth’s youngest volcanic island


The structure and function of coral reef ecosystems is increasingly compromised by multiple stressors, even in the most remote locations. Severe, acute disturbances such as volcanic eruptions represent extreme events that can annihilate entire reef ecosystems, but also provide unique opportunities to examine ecosystem resilience and recovery. Here, we examine the destruction, persistence and initial recovery of reefs associated with the hydro-magmatic eruption that created Earth’s newest landmass, the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai volcanic island. Despite extreme conditions associated with the eruption, impacts on nearby reefs were spatially variable. Importantly, even heavily affected reefs showed signs of rapid recovery driven by high recruitment, likely from local refuges. The remote location and corresponding lack of additional stressors likely contribute to the resilience of Hunga’s reefs, suggesting that in the absence of chronic anthropogenic stressors, coral reefs can be resilient to one of the largest physical disturbances on Earth.

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We thank Whale Discoveries, Jason Sheehan and Chancey MacDonald for field support and Robert Pressey for funding. This work was supported by the Australian Research Council Centre for Excellence in Coral Reef Studies and the National Geographic Society.

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Correspondence to P. F. Smallhorn-West.

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Smallhorn-West, P.F., Garvin, J.B., Slayback, D.A. et al. Coral reef annihilation, persistence and recovery at Earth’s youngest volcanic island. Coral Reefs 39, 529–536 (2020).

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  • Refuge population
  • Ecosystem resilience
  • Coral reef
  • Volcanic eruption
  • Reef recovery