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Emergent increase in coral thermal tolerance reduces mass bleaching under climate change

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Liam Lachs, Dr Peter Mumby, Professor John BythellORCiD, Dr Adriana Humanes Schumann, Dr James Guest



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


© 2023, Springer Nature Limited. Recurrent mass bleaching events threaten the future of coral reefs. To persist under climate change, corals will need to endure progressively more intense and frequent marine heatwaves, yet it remains unknown whether their thermal tolerance can keep pace with warming. Here, we reveal an emergent increase in the thermal tolerance of coral assemblages at a rate of 0.1 °C/decade for a remote Pacific coral reef system. This led to less severe bleaching impacts than would have been predicted otherwise, indicating adaptation, acclimatisation or shifts in community structure. Using future climate projections, we show that if thermal tolerance continues to rise over the coming century at the most-likely historic rate, substantial reductions in bleaching trajectories are possible. High-frequency bleaching can be fully mitigated at some reefs under low-to-middle emissions scenarios, yet can only be delayed under high emissions scenarios. Collectively, our results indicate a potential ecological resilience to climate change, but still highlight the need for reducing carbon emissions in line with Paris Agreement commitments to preserve coral reefs.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Lachs L, Donner SD, Mumby PJ, Bythell JC, Humanes A, East HK, Guest JR

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Nature Communications

Year: 2023

Volume: 14

Issue: 1

Online publication date: 22/08/2023

Acceptance date: 01/08/2023

Date deposited: 13/09/2023

ISSN (electronic): 2041-1723

Publisher: Springer Nature


DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-40601-6

PubMed id: 37607913


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Funder referenceFunder name
725848Commission of the European Communities
NE/S007512/1Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
UKRI Mitacs Globalink grant