Fine-scale variability in coral bleaching and mortality during a marine heatwave

Shreya Yadav*, Ty N. F. Roach, Michael J. McWilliam, Carlo Caruso, Mariana Rocha de Souza, Catherine Foley, Corinne Allen, Jenna Dilworth, Joel Huckeba, Erika P. Santoro, Renee Wold, Jacquelyn Simpson, Spencer Miller, Joshua R. Hancock, Crawford Drury, Joshua S. Madin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
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Coral bleaching and mortality can show significant spatial and taxonomic heterogeneity at local scales, highlighting the need to understand the fine-scale drivers and impacts of thermal stress. In this study, we used structure-from-motion photogrammetry to track coral bleaching, mortality, and changes in community composition during the 2019 marine heatwave in Kāneʻohe Bay, Hawaiʻi. We surveyed 30 shallow reef patches every 3 weeks for the duration of the bleaching event (August-December) and one year after, resulting in a total of 210 large-area, high-resolution photomosaics that enabled us to follow the fate of thousands of coral colonies through time. We also measured environmental variables such as temperature, sedimentation, depth, and wave velocity at each of these sites, and extracted estimates of habitat complexity (rugosity R and fractal dimension D) from digital elevation models to better understand their effects on patterns of bleaching and mortality. We found that up to 80% of corals experienced moderate to severe bleaching in this period, with peak bleaching occurring in October when heat stress (Degree Heating Weeks) reached its maximum. Mortality continued to accumulate as bleaching levels dropped, driving large declines in more heat-susceptible species (77% loss of Pocillopora cover) and moderate declines in heat-tolerant species (19% and 23% for Porites compressa and Montipora capitata, respectively). Declines in live coral were accompanied by a rapid increase in algal cover across the survey sites. Spatial differences in bleaching were significantly linked to habitat complexity and coral species composition, with reefs that were dominated by Pocillopora experiencing the most severe bleaching. Mortality was also influenced by species composition, fractal dimension, and site-level differences in thermal stress. Our results show that spatial heterogeneity in the impacts of bleaching are driven by a mix of environmental variation, habitat complexity, and differences in assemblage composition.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1108365
Number of pages11
JournalFrontiers in Marine Science
Publication statusPublished - 13 Jun 2023


  • sfm photogrammetry
  • Habitat complexity
  • Coral bleaching
  • Pocillopora
  • Climate change


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