During 2015–2016, record temperatures triggered a pan-tropical episode of coral bleaching, the third global-scale event since mass bleaching was first documented in the 1980s. Here we examine how and why the severity of recurrent major bleaching events has varied at multiple scales, using aerial and underwater surveys of Australian reefs combined with satellite-derived sea surface temperatures. The distinctive geographic footprints of recurrent bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in 1998, 2002 and 2016 were determined by the spatial pattern of sea temperatures in each year. Water quality and fishing pressure had minimal effect on the unprecedented bleaching in 2016, suggesting that local protection of reefs affords little or no resistance to extreme heat. Similarly, past exposure to bleaching in 1998 and 2002 did not lessen the severity of bleaching in 2016. Consequently, immediate global action to curb future warming is essential to secure a future for coral reefs.

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The authors acknowledge the 21 institutions that supported this research, in Australia, the UK, and the USA. Twenty-six of the authors are supported by funding from the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence Program. Other funding support includes the Australian Commonwealth Government, the European Union, the USA National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration, and USA National Science Foundation. GlobColour data (http://globcolour.info) used in this study has been developed, validated, and distributed by ACRI-ST, France. The contents in this manuscript are solely the opinions of the authors and do not constitute a statement of policy, decision or position on behalf of NOAA or the US Government. We thank the many student volunteers who participated in field studies.

Author information


  1. Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811, Australia

    • Terry P. Hughes
    • , James T. Kerry
    • , Mariana Álvarez-Noriega
    • , Jorge G. Álvarez-Romero
    • , Kristen D. Anderson
    • , Andrew H. Baird
    • , David R. Bellwood
    • , Tom C. Bridge
    • , Sean R. Connolly
    • , Graeme S. Cumming
    • , Hugo B. Harrison
    • , Andrew S. Hoey
    • , Mia O. Hoogenboom
    • , Chao-yang Kuo
    • , Janice M. Lough
    • , Michael J. McWilliam
    • , Morgan S. Pratchett
    • , Gergely Torda
    •  & Bette L. Willis
  2. College of Science and Engineering, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811, Australia

    • Mariana Álvarez-Noriega
    • , David R. Bellwood
    • , Ray Berkelmans
    • , Sean R. Connolly
    • , Mia O. Hoogenboom
    •  & Bette L. Willis
  3. Commonwealth Science and Industry Research Organization, GPO Box 2583 Brisbane, Queensland 4001, Australia

    • Russell C. Babcock
  4. School of Biology, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK

    • Maria Beger
  5. 24 Hanwood Court, Gilston, Queensland 4211, Australia

  6. Queensland Museum, 70-102 Flinders St, Townsville, Queensland 4810, Australia

    • Tom C. Bridge
  7. Australian Research Council, Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia

    • Ian R. Butler
    • , John M. Pandolfi
    •  & Brigitte Sommer
  8. School of Medical Sciences, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales 2006, Australia

    • Maria Byrne
  9. Australian Institute of Marine Science, PMB 3, Townsville, Queensland 4810, Australia

    • Neal E. Cantin
    • , Janice M. Lough
    •  & Gergely Torda
  10. Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies, Oceans Institute and School of Earth and Environment, University of Western Australia, Crawley, Western Australia 6009, Australia

    • Steeve Comeau
    • , Ryan J. Lowe
    • , Malcolm T. McCulloch
    •  & Verena Schoepf
  11. Fisheries Research, Department of Primary Industries, PO Box 4291, Coffs Harbour, New South Wales 2450, Australia

    • Steven J. Dalton
    •  & Hamish A. Malcolm
  12. School of Environment, and Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University, Brisbane, Queensland 4111, Australia

    • Guillermo Diaz-Pulido
    •  & Emma V. Kennedy
  13. Coral Reef Watch, US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, College Park, Maryland 20740, USA

    • C. Mark Eakin
    • , Scott F. Heron
    • , Gang Liu
    •  & William J. Skirving
  14. School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales 2006, Australia

    • Will F. Figueira
  15. Australian Institute of Marine Science, Indian Oceans Marine Research Centre, University of Western Australia, Crawley, Western Australia 6009, Australia

    • James P. Gilmour
  16. Global Science & Technology, Inc., Greenbelt, Maryland 20770, USA

    • Scott F. Heron
    • , Gang Liu
    •  & William J. Skirving
  17. Marine Geophysical Laboratory, College of Science, Technology and Engineering, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811, Australia

    • Scott F. Heron
  18. Department of Environment and Agriculture, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia 6845, Australia

    • Jean-Paul A. Hobbs
  19. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, PO Box 1379, Townsville, Queensland 4810, Australia

    • Rachel J. Pears
    •  & David R. Wachenfeld
  20. Torres Strait Regional Authority, PO Box 261, Thursday Island, Queensland 4875, Australia

    • Tristan Simpson
  21. Department of Parks and Wildlife, Kensington, Perth, Western Australia 6151, Australia

    • Shaun K. Wilson


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The study was conceptualized by T.P.H. who wrote the first draft of the paper. All authors contributed to writing subsequent drafts. J.T.K. coordinated data compilation, analysis and graphics. Aerial bleaching surveys in 2016 of the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait were executed by J.T.K., T.P.H. and T.S., and in 1998 and 2002 by R.B. and D.R.W. Underwater bleaching censuses in 2016 were undertaken on the Great Barrier Reef by M.A.-N., A.H.B., D.R.B., M.B., N.E.C., C.Y.K., G.D.-P., A.S.H., M.O.H., E.V.K., M.J.M., R.J.P., M.S.P., G.T. and B.L.W., in the Coral Sea by T.C.B. and H.B.H., in subtropical Queensland and New South Wales by M.B., I.R.B., R.C.B., S.J.D., W.F.F., H.A.M., J.M.P. and B.S., off western Australia by R.C.B., S.C., J.P.G., J.-P.A.H., M.T.M., V.S. and S.K.W. J.G.A.-R., S.R.C., C.M.E., S.F.H., G.L., J.M.L. and W.J.S. undertook the analysis matching satellite data to the bleaching footprints on the Great Barrier Reef.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Terry P. Hughes.

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