Global warming is rapidly emerging as a universal threat to ecological integrity and function, highlighting the urgent need for a better understanding of the impact of heat exposure on the resilience of ecosystems and the people who depend on them1. Here we show that in the aftermath of the record-breaking marine heatwave on the Great Barrier Reef in 20162, corals began to die immediately on reefs where the accumulated heat exposure exceeded a critical threshold of degree heating weeks, which was 3–4 °C-weeks. After eight months, an exposure of 6 °C-weeks or more drove an unprecedented, regional-scale shift in the composition of coral assemblages, reflecting markedly divergent responses to heat stress by different taxa. Fast-growing staghorn and tabular corals suffered a catastrophic die-off, transforming the three-dimensionality and ecological functioning of 29% of the 3,863 reefs comprising the world’s largest coral reef system. Our study bridges the gap between the theory and practice of assessing the risk of ecosystem collapse, under the emerging framework for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Ecosystems3, by rigorously defining both the initial and collapsed states, identifying the major driver of change, and establishing quantitative collapse thresholds. The increasing prevalence of post-bleaching mass mortality of corals represents a radical shift in the disturbance regimes of tropical reefs, both adding to and far exceeding the influence of recurrent cyclones and other local pulse events, presenting a fundamental challenge to the long-term future of these iconic ecosystems.
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We acknowledge support from the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence Program and a Laureate Fellowship to T.P.H., from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The scientific results and conclusions, as well as any views or opinions expressed herein, are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NOAA or the US Department of Commerce. We thank T. Simpson, who provided 225 aerial scores of bleaching from the Torres Strait; M. Jacobson for assistance with statistical programming; members of the Australian National Coral Bleaching Taskforce, marine park managers and rangers, and 30 student volunteers, who participated in extensive field studies on the Great Barrier Reef throughout 2016.