People and ecosystems

Understanding of the links between coral reef ecosystems, the goods and services they provide to people, and the wellbeing of human societies.


Ecosystem dynamics: past, present and future

Examining the multi-scale dynamics of reefs, from population dynamics to macroevolution


Responding to a changing world

Advancing the fundamental understanding of the key processes underpinning reef resilience.

Coral Bleaching

Coral Bleaching

Coral Reef Studies

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au

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Extensive coral bleaching (white/yellow patches) documented on the Great Barrier Reef during aerial surveys in March 2016. Credit: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

Climate change and coral bleaching

Seminar25_cycloneGlobally, our climate is undergoing fundamental shifts, both in changing average weather conditions and the frequency of extreme weather events. Most notably, the Earth’s climate system is unequivocally warming, and it is extremely likely (at least 95% probability) that these changes are in large part a result of human activities.

Corals inhabiting tropical coral reefs are thermally sensitive, meaning that they can only tolerate small temperature ranges. However, climate change is causing abnormally high sea-surface temperatures, which is causing corals to bleach during summer months (see below for detail). The intensity of coral bleaching increases as temperatures become hotter.

The Great Barrier Reef has experienced two major bleaching events in recent decades, in the summers of 1998 and 2002 when, respectively, 42% and 54% of reefs were affected by bleaching.

The science of coral bleaching

Bleached staghorn with damselfish. Photo by Jodie Rummer.

Bleached staghorn with damselfish. Photo by Jodie Rummer.

Zooxanthellae are tiny, colourful marine algae, which live inside corals, providing them with much of their colour and, most importantly, their primary supply of energy. However, if the surrounding sea temperature becomes too warm, the algae die.

The loss of these zooxanthellae is what we refer to as ‘coral bleaching’. Without zooxanthellae coral tissue becomes transparent, revealing the white coral skeleton beneath it. Once this happens, the corals can die if unfavourable conditions persist. If, however, temperatures return to normal levels, corals can regain their zooxanthellae, although the stress is likely to cause a decrease in growth and reproduction.

Building reef resilience

Future bleaching events are inevitable, but there are a number of important steps that we can take, locally, nationally and internationally to give the Great Barrier Reef a fighting chance.

A concerted effort to reduce global carbon emissions will lessen the rise of ocean temperatures and ocean acidification. At the state level, we need to substantially improve the quality of water flowing on to the Reef. Poor water quality is particularly harmful for coral growth, reproduction and the survival of young corals, severely limiting reef recovery potential. Furthermore, research shows that excessive nutrients arriving on the Great Barrier Reef trigger harmful crown-of-thorns outbreaks, which can devastate vast areas of the reef.

How effectively we manage fishing, coastal development, pollution, trawling and shipping will play an important part in determining the future resilience of the Great Barrier Reef.


Coral Bleaching Map

Scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies surveyed 83 reefs in March at the height of the 2016 bleaching event. Take a look at our interactive map of the Great Barrier Reef. You can click on photos and videos captured during the aerial surveys and see for yourself the extent of the bleaching.




Composite map of surveyed corals across the 2016 and 2017 back-to-back bleaching events. Not all data is shown, only reefs at either end of the bleaching spectrum: Red circles indicate reefs undergoing most severe bleaching (60% or more of visible corals bleaching) Green circles indicate reefs with no or only minimal bleaching (10% or less of corals bleaching).



Hot news on the 2016 and 2017 coral bleaching events:

4 April 2019: Global warming disrupts recovery of coral reefs

11 Dec 2018: A glimmer of hope for the world’s coral reefs

26 Oct 2018: Fish give up the fight after coral bleaching

05 Sept 2018: Coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef not limited to shallow depths

19 Apr 2018: Global warming is transforming the Great Barrier Reef

06 Apr 2018: Coral bleaching threatens the diversity of reef fish

29 Jan 2018: Coral reefs are in trouble – how can people adapt?

05 Jan 2018: The window for saving the world’s coral reefs is rapidly closing

03 Nov 2017: Research examines impact of coral bleaching on Western Australia’s coastline

01 June 2017: A brave new world for coral reefs

10 April 2017: Two-thirds of Great Barrier Reef hit by back-to-back mass coral bleaching

16 March 2017: Scientists mobilise as coral bleaching resumes on the Great Barrier Reef

29 November 2016: Life and death after Great Barrier Reef bleaching

26 October 2016: Scientists assess bleaching damage on Great Barrier Reef

21 June 2016 Heat sickens corals in global bleaching event

06 June 2016: Coral bleaching reaches Coral Sea

30 May 2016: Coral death toll climbs on Great Barrier Reef

20 April 2016: Only 7% of the Great Barrier Reef has avoided coral bleaching

15 April 2016: Great Barrier Reef risks losing tolerance to bleaching events

05 April 2016: National Coral Taskforce unleashes an armada of experts

29 March 2016: Coral Bleaching Taskforce documents most severe bleaching on record

21 March 2016: Scientist witnesses severe coral bleaching

14 March 2016: National Coral Taskforce puts plan into effect as bleaching intensifies

01 March 2016: National Coral Bleaching Taskforce keeping a close watch on the Reef


Coral bleaching on the northern Great Barrier Reef as seen from the air during aerial surveys in March 2016

Coral bleaching on the northern Great Barrier Reef as seen from under water during underwater surveys in March 2016


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Coral Reef Studies

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au