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

Liam Lachs*, Simon D. Donner, Peter J. Mumby, John C. Bythell, Adriana Humanes, Holly K. East, James R. Guest

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
11 Downloads (Pure)


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.
Original languageEnglish
Article number4939
JournalNature Communications
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 22 Aug 2023

Cite this