New Fast-Breaking Paper in coral Reef Ecology

In the most recent iteration of Fast-Breaking Papers, the article “Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals” (Nature 543 [7645]: 373-+, 16 March 2017) was the most-cited for Environment & Ecology. Currently in Essential Science Indicators, this paper is both Hot and Highly Cited. The Web of Science shows 51 citations to this paper to date.

Below, the paper’s lead author, Dr. Terry Hughes of James Cook University talks about the paper’s growing influence in coral reef ecology.


Why do you think your paper is highly cited? Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or synthesis of knowledge? Would you summarize the significance of your paper in layman’s terms?

The paper provides the first comprehensive analysis of the global coral bleaching event that spread throughout the tropics in 2015 and especially 2016. It shows that global warming has emerged as the most serious threat to coral reefs, compounding more local degradation caused by overfishing and pollution. We conclude that rapid action to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases is essential for securing a future for coral reefs.


How did you become involved in this research, and how would you describe the particular challenges, setbacks, and successes that you’ve encountered along the way?

The research is multidisciplinary, involving a large team from more than 20 institutions. We planned the research well in advance of the unprecedented heatwave, because we knew it was only a matter of time before escalating temperature due to global warming exceeded the thermal threshold of corals at a near-global scale. One challenge was to map the extent of bleaching at very large scales, which involved deploying hundreds of researchers, research vessels, and charter airplanes and a helicopter for extensive aerial surveys.


Where do you see your research leading in the future?

The Nature paper explains why some places bleached more than others along the length of the Great Barrier Reef in March 2016 and in two earlier events there in 2002 and 1998. Our current work is quantifying the subsequent mass mortality of corals in 2016 triggered by the bleaching, and the impact of a fourth bleaching event in March 2017. The Great Barrier Reef has been badly damaged, and we are now examining its future capacity to regenerate.


Do you foresee any social or political implications for your research?

The decline of coral reefs has major repercussions for livelihoods and food security in rapidly developing tropical countries. In Australia, this research has triggered a review of policies for management of the Great Barrier Reef, and raised public awareness of the dangers of climate change for this national (and international) icon.


Prof. Terry Hughes FAA
Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University
Townsville, Queensland, Australia