Temporary refugia for coral reefs in a warming world



Climate-change impacts on coral reefs are expected to include temperature-induced spatially extensive bleaching events1. Bleaching causes mortality when temperature stress persists but exposure to bleaching conditions is not expected to be spatially uniform at the regional or global scale2. Here we show the first maps of global projections of bleaching conditions based on ensembles of IPCC AR5 (ref. 3) models forced with the new Representative Concentration Pathways4 (RCPs). For the three RCPs with larger CO2 emissions (RCP 4.5, 6.0 and 8.5) the onset of annual bleaching conditions is associated with 510 ppm CO2 equivalent; the median year of all locations is 2040 for the fossil-fuel aggressive RCP 8.5. Spatial patterns in the onset of annual bleaching conditions are similar for each of the RCPs. For RCP 8.5, 26% of reef cells are projected to experience annual bleaching conditions more than 5 years later than the median. Some of these temporary refugia include the western Indian Ocean, Thailand, the southern Great Barrier Reef and central French Polynesia. A reduction in the growth of greenhouse-gas emissions corresponding to the difference between RCP 8.5 and 6.0 delays annual bleaching in 23% of reef cells more than two decades, which might conceivably increase the potential for these reefs to cope with these changes.

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Figure 1: Percentage of reef cells projected to experience bleaching per year.
Figure 2: Model spread for each of the RCPs.
Figure 3: Histogram of projected years when bleaching conditions start to occur annually.
Figure 4: Global projections of the year annual bleaching conditions start for all reef locations.


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The community archives housing the data used here are described in the Methods. This study was partly financially supported by EPHE/CNRS and CRIOBE and IRCP (French Polynesia) through grants originally awarded to S.P., and partly financially supported by a grant to all authors from the Pacific Islands Climate Change Cooperative. This research was performed while R.v.H. held a National Research Council Research Associateship Award at NOAA AOML. P. Marshall and K. Anthony provided helpful comments. We thank M. Huber, Purdue ITAP and RCAC for their resources and assistance.

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R.v.H. and J.A.M. designed the study. Climate data were collated and analysed by R.v.H. All authors contributed to writing the manuscript.

Correspondence to R. van Hooidonk.

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van Hooidonk, R., Maynard, J. & Planes, S. Temporary refugia for coral reefs in a warming world. Nature Clim Change 3, 508–511 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1829

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