Threats from climate change and other human pressures have led to widespread concern for the future of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Resilience of GBR reefs will be determined by their ability to resist disturbances and to recover from coral loss, generating intense interest in management actions that can moderate these processes. Here we quantify the effect of environmental and human drivers on the resilience of southern and central GBR reefs over the past two decades. Using a composite water quality index, we find that while reefs exposed to poor water quality are more resistant to coral bleaching, they recover from disturbance more slowly and are more susceptible to outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish and coral disease—with a net negative impact on recovery and long-term hard coral cover. Given these conditions, we find that 6–17% improvement in water quality will be necessary to bring recovery rates in line with projected increases in coral bleaching among contemporary inshore and mid-shelf reefs. However, such reductions are unlikely to buffer projected bleaching effects among outer-shelf GBR reefs dominated by fast-growing, thermally sensitive corals, demonstrating practical limits to local management of the GBR against the effects of global warming.

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This research was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (Canada) Research Chair awarded to A. MacNeil, Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher awards to C, Mellin (No. DE140100701) and C. Drovandi (No. DE160100741) and a Royal Society University Research Fellowship awarded to N. Graham (No. UF140691). We thank the exceptional staff at the Australian Institute of Marine Science for their support and critical discussions of the work. Data and coding used in this paper are available through the GitHub links in Methods. We thank S. Purkis for providing a draft manuscript on remote sensing. We also especially thank R. van Hooidonk at NOAA for graciously and quickly providing GBR-specific degree heating month predictions.

Author information


  1. Department of Biology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

    • M. Aaron MacNeil
  2. Australian Institute of Marine Science, Townsville, Queensland, Australia

    • Camille Mellin
    •  & Sam Matthews
  3. The Environment Institute and School of Biological Sciences, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

    • Camille Mellin
  4. ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia

    • Sam Matthews
  5. Global Science, The Nature Conservancy, Brunswick, ME, USA

    • Nicholas H. Wolff
  6. The Wildlife Conservation Society, Marine Programs, Bronx, NY, USA

    • Timothy R. McClanahan
  7. Marine Programs, Mombasa, Kenya

    • Timothy R. McClanahan
  8. Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, Lowestoft, UK

    • Michelle Devlin
  9. School of Mathematical Sciences, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

    • Christopher Drovandi
    •  & Kerrie Mengersen
  10. Australian Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

    • Christopher Drovandi
    •  & Kerrie Mengersen
  11. Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK

    • Nicholas A. J. Graham


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M.A.M. conceived of the study with N.A.J.G. M.A.M., C.M., N.H.W., M.D. and S.M. collected or collated the data. M.A.M., C.M., C.D. and K.M. developed and implemented the analyses with ideas from T.R.M., S.M. and N.H.W. M.A.M., C.M. and N.A.J.G. wrote the paper, and all authors contributed considerably to the interpretation and editing of the manuscript.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Correspondence to M. Aaron MacNeil.

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