Corals escape bleaching in regions that recently and historically experienced frequent thermal stress

D. M. Thompson, R. Van Woesik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

147 Scopus citations


The response of coral-reef ecosystems to contemporary thermal stress may be in part a consequence of recent or historical sea-surface temperature (SST) variability. To test this hypothesis, we examined whether: (i) there was a relationship between the historical frequency of SST variability and stress experienced during the most recent thermal-stress events (in 1998 and 2005-2006) and (ii) coral reefs that historically experienced frequent thermal anomalies were less likely to experience coral bleaching during these recent thermal-stress events. Examination of nine detrended coral δ18O and Sr/Ca anomaly records revealed a high- (5.7-year) and low-frequency (>54-year) mode of SST variability. There was a positive relationship between the historical frequency of SST anomalies and recent thermal stress; sites historically dominated by the high-frequency mode experienced greater thermal stress than other sites during both events, and showed extensive coral bleaching in 1998. Nonetheless, in 2005-2006, corals at sites dominated by high-frequency variability showed reduced bleaching, despite experiencing high thermal stress. This bleaching resistance was most likely a consequence of rapid directional selection that followed the extreme thermal event of 1998. However, the benefits of regional resistance could come at the considerable cost of shifts in coral species composition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2893-2901
Number of pages9
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1669
StatePublished - Aug 22 2009


  • Adaptation
  • Climate change
  • Coral bleaching
  • El Niño-southern oscillation
  • Sea-surface temperature variability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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