Letter | Published:

Climatic and biotic thresholds of coral-reef shutdown

Nature Climate Change volume 5, pages 369374 (2015) | Download Citation


Climate change is now the leading cause of coral-reef degradation and is altering the adaptive landscape of coral populations1,2. Increasing sea temperatures and declining carbonate saturation states are inhibiting short-term rates of coral calcification, carbonate precipitation and submarine cementation3,4,5. A critical challenge to coral-reef conservation is understanding the mechanisms by which environmental perturbations scale up to influence long-term rates of reef-framework construction and ecosystem function6,7. Here we reconstruct climatic and oceanographic variability using corals sampled from a 6,750-year core from Pacific Panamá. Simultaneous reconstructions of coral palaeophysiology and reef accretion allowed us to identify the climatic and biotic thresholds associated with a 2,500-year hiatus in vertical accretion beginning 4,100 years ago8. Stronger upwelling, cooler sea temperatures and greater precipitation—indicators of La Niña-like conditions—were closely associated with abrupt reef shutdown. The physiological condition of the corals deteriorated at the onset of the hiatus, corroborating theoretical predictions that the tipping points of radical ecosystem transitions should be manifested sublethally in the biotic constituents9. Future climate change could cause similar threshold behaviours, leading to another shutdown in reef development in the tropical eastern Pacific.

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We are grateful to P. Swart, A. Rosenberg and A. Waite for providing assistance with geochemical analyses. We also thank M. Bush, P. Glynn, J. Trefry and R. van Woesik for advice and discussion. H. Guzmán and S. Dos Santos of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute provided regional temperature and rainfall data for the proxy calibrations. This research was financially supported by a Graduate Student Research Grant from the Geological Society of America, a grant from the Lerner–Gray Fund for Marine Research of the American Museum of Natural History, grants from the Smithsonian Institution’s Marine Science Network, and the Natural Science Foundation of China grant no. 41230524. Field work was carried out under permits from the Republic of Panamá. This paper is dedicated to the memory of G. M. Wellington, whose research in the eastern Pacific laid the foundations on which our work is built. This is Contribution 128 from the Institute for Research on Global Climate Change at the Florida Institute of Technology.

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Author notes

    • Lauren T. Toth

    Present address: US Geological Survey, Coastal and Marine Science Center, St Petersburg, Florida 33701, USA.


  1. Department of Biological Sciences, Florida Institute of Technology, Melbourne, Florida 32901, USA

    • Lauren T. Toth
    •  & Richard B. Aronson
  2. Smithsonian Marine Station and National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC 20560, USA

    • Richard B. Aronson
  3. Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia 30332, USA

    • Kim M. Cobb
    • , Pamela R. Grothe
    •  & Hussein R. Sayani
  4. Institute of Global Environmental Change, Xi’an Jiaotong University, Xi’an 710049, China

    • Hai Cheng
  5. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455, USA

    • Hai Cheng
    •  & R. Lawrence Edwards


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L.T.T. conceived and designed the study, analysed the data, and wrote the paper. R.B.A. designed the study and wrote the paper. K.M.C. analysed the data and wrote the paper. H.C. and R.L.E. analysed the U-series data. P.R.G. and H.R.S. analysed the modern geochemical samples. All authors contributed to the discussion of results.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Lauren T. Toth.

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