Model-based assessment of the role of human-induced climate change in the 2005 Caribbean coral bleaching event

Simon D. Donner, Thomas R. Knutson, Michael Oppenheimer

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Episodes of mass coral bleaching around the world in recent decades have been attributed to periods of anomalously warm ocean temperatures. In 2005, the sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly in the tropical North Atlantic that may have contributed to the strong hurricane season caused widespread coral bleaching in the Eastern Caribbean. Here, we use two global climate models to evaluate the contribution of natural climate variability and anthropogenic forcing to the thermal stress that caused the 2005 coral bleaching event. Historical temperature data and simulations for the 1870-2000 period show that the observed warming in the region is unlikely to be due to unforced climate variability alone. Simulation of background climate variability suggests that anthropogenic warming may have increased the probability of occurrence of significant thermal stress events for corals in this region by an order of magnitude. Under scenarios of future greenhouse gas emissions, mass coral bleaching in the Eastern Caribbean may become a biannual event in 20-30 years. However, if corals and their symbionts can adapt by 1-1.5°C, such mass bleaching events may not begin to recur at potentially harmful intervals until the latter half of the century. The delay could enable more time to alter the path of greenhouse gas emissions, although long-term "committed warming" even after stabilization of atmospheric CO2 levels may still represent an additional long-term threat to corals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5483-5488
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number13
StatePublished - Mar 27 2007

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Adaptation
  • Climate models
  • Coral reefs
  • Ocean warming
  • Symbiosis


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