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Changing dynamics of Great Barrier Reef hard coral cover in the Anthropocene

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Cycles of disturbance and recovery govern the temporal dynamics of living coral cover on coral reefs. Monitoring the state of the Great Barrier Reef at regional and individual reef scales has been ongoing by the Long-Term Monitoring Program at the Australian Institute of Marine Science since 1986. After a period of relative stability between 1986 and 2010, the latest decade of surveys recorded increased frequency of intense, large-scale disturbance events and coral cover has reached unprecedented lows and highs in each region. Following the consecutive bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, widespread recovery occurred on the northern and central Great Barrier Reef between 2017 and 2022, which was halted in 2023. An examination of the effects of the 2022 bleaching event revealed that the direct and indirect impacts of this event, along with ongoing crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, notable incidences of coral disease, and the passage of a tropical cyclone all contributed to the most recent coral cover changes across the Great Barrier Reef. The prognosis for future disturbances suggests increasing and longer-lasting marine heatwaves, continuing severe tropical cyclones and the ongoing risk of outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish. Although the observed capacity for recovery is a cause for cautious optimism for the overall state of the Great Barrier Reef, there is increasing concern for its ability to continue to bounce back in the face of escalating climatic pressure.

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Source: NOAA/NESDIS/STAR Coral Reef Watch program

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The datasets generated during and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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The LTMP data analysed in this study were collected from the traditional sea Country of the Gudang Yadhaykenu, Wuthathi, Kuuku Ya'u, Umpila, Dingaal, Thaanill-warra, Ngurruumungu, Eastern Kuku Yalanji, Yirrganydji, Gunggandji, Gunggandji-Mandingalbay yidinji, Mandubarra, Bandjin, Girramay, Gulngay, Djiru, Nywaigi, Manbarra, Wulgurukaba, Bindal, Ngaro, Yuwibara, Wiri, Yuwi-Bara, Koinjmal, Guninmal and Darumbal peoples, as well as people represented by the Mackay Coastal Group and the Port Curtis Coral Coast Trust. The authors pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging. We also thank all past members and volunteers of the LTMP and the crews of the RV Sirius, RV Harry Messel, RV Lady Basten, RV Cape Ferguson and RV Solander for their excellent logistical support in the field.

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Correspondence to Michael J. Emslie.

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Emslie, M.J., Ceccarelli, D.M., Logan, M. et al. Changing dynamics of Great Barrier Reef hard coral cover in the Anthropocene. Coral Reefs 43, 747–762 (2024).

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