Effects of modeled tropical sea surface temperature variability on coral reef bleaching predictions

R. van Hooidonk, M. Huber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Future widespread coral bleaching and subsequent mortality has been projected using sea surface temperature (SST) data derived from global, coupled ocean-atmosphere general circulation models (GCMs). While these models possess fidelity in reproducing many aspects of climate, they vary in their ability to correctly capture such parameters as the tropical ocean seasonal cycle and El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) variability. Such weaknesses most likely reduce the accuracy of predicting coral bleaching, but little attention has been paid to the important issue of understanding potential errors and biases, the interaction of these biases with trends, and their propagation in predictions. To analyze the relative importance of various types of model errors and biases in predicting coral bleaching, various intra-and inter-annual frequency bands of observed SSTs were replaced with those frequencies from 24 GCMs 20th century simulations included in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 4th assessment report. Subsequent thermal stress was calculated and predictions of bleaching were made. These predictions were compared with observations of coral bleaching in the period 1982-2007 to calculate accuracy using an objective measure of forecast quality, the Peirce skill score (PSS). Major findings are that: (1) predictions are most sensitive to the seasonal cycle and inter-annual variability in the ENSO 24-60 months frequency band and (2) because models tend to understate the seasonal cycle at reef locations, they systematically underestimate future bleaching. The methodology we describe can be used to improve the accuracy of bleaching predictions by characterizing the errors and uncertainties involved in the predictions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)121-131
Number of pages11
JournalCoral Reefs
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2012


  • Climate change
  • Coral bleaching
  • Coupled ocean-atmosphere general circulation models

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aquatic Science


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