Forecasting intensifying disturbance effects on coral reefs

Do you know that the northern section of Great Barrier Reef (GBR) was impacted, for the first time, by two cyclones and three mass coral bleaching in only six years? As a result, the coverage of reef-building hard coral decreased at unprecedented levels for the region.

This work led by Dr. Julie Vercelloni combined the state-of-art methodologies for coral reef data collection, remote sensing and statistical modelling to predict the future ecological status of GBR’s reefs as the incidence of multiple disturbances continues to increase. Using 140,000 field observations, the statistical model estimated the effects of discrete and interacting disturbance (bleaching and cyclone) on the coverage of hard coral, soft coral and algae. The model also accounted for correlations between communities to reflect the specific nature of the compositional data.

We found that the responses of algae and soft coral to the decline of hard coral varied by the frequency and types of disturbance interactions with higher uncertainty estimated in the presence of several disturbances. The new approach developed in this paper produced robust information for practical conservation strategies that can support the survival of these unique and valuable marine ecosystems.