Coral bleaching


From understanding the history of coral bleaching, to developing potential large-scale solutions to assist corals to resist and recover from climate change,
AIMS’ research is at the forefront of coral bleaching science.

What is coral bleaching?

Coral bleaching is a coral’s response to stressful conditions. During bleaching, the coral animal loses its symbiotic algae and pigments, causing it to turn white and potentially die. Bleaching is strongly associated with heat stress, although changes in salinity, light and periods of cool water can also cause corals to bleach.

As sea surface temperatures warm due to global climate change, coral bleaching is now occurring across large areas of tropical reefs and more frequently. Episodes of wide-scale bleaching are recent, being first recorded in the 1980s. There is no prior evidence of these large-scale events in the 400-year coral core history on the Great Barrier Reef.

A threat to reefs worldwide

Coral bleaching is a major threat to reefs worldwide. Over the past 2 decades, bleaching has resulted in significant loss of coral reef cover (including on the Great Barrier Reef), as well as the valuable goods and services healthy reefs provide.

The frequency, extent and severity of coral bleaching will increase in coming decades unless the amount of future climate warming is rapidly constrained.

Our research into coral bleaching

AIMS is a research leader in many facets of the modern coral bleaching phenomenon. We also partner with other research agencies to improve the global understanding of coral bleaching.

Science for solutions and management

We lead the design phase of the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program, a long-term research project investigating the best science and technology options to help the Great Barrier Reef resist, repair and recover from mounting levels of environmental stresses.

We develop sophisticated models based on our long-term data and ecological expertise to identify areas of resilience and vulnerability to future climates, and provide managers with information to predict bleaching risk.

World-class aquaria facility

Our National Sea Simulator, Australia’s most advanced aquaria facility, is home to cutting-edge research into the impacts and consequences of bleaching. Here, we conduct experiments to develop models, and inform and develop actions and interventions that can restore and help reefs adapt to a different future. This includes studying the genetic makeup of corals and their symbionts and exploring the potential for assisting corals to cope with increasingly stressful future conditions by selective breeding.

Large-scale monitoring of northern Australia

Our reef monitoring programs on the Great Barrier Reef and Western Australian reefs provide some of the world’s best large-scale, long-term information on patterns of bleaching and recovery.

Operating key facilities of the Integrated Marine Observing System in Queensland and Western Australia, we help monitor the physical environment across tropical Australia.

In-water oceanographic and weather stations provide real-time data to identify warming sea temperatures and the risk of bleaching across the Great Barrier Reef. 

Other ocean observing equipment such as an extensive temperature logger network helps us understand the role of how oceanographic mechanisms and weather influence patterns of warming across Australia’s north.

Placing modern-day bleaching in context

Our research into coral cores reveals bleaching histories from the past 400 years, providing valuable context for the modern-day scale of bleaching.