LTER: MCR IV: Long-Term Dynamics of a Coral Reef Ecosystem

Award Period
Award Amount
Agency Name
National Science Foundation
Award Number
PI First Name
PI Last Name
Sally Holbrook
Deron Burkepile
Area/s of Research
Ecology and Evolution

For the past 18 years, the Moorea Coral Reef (MCR) LTER program has sought to understand the longterm dynamics of oceanic coral reef ecosystems. Coral reefs have extraordinary biodiversity and provide profoundly important ecosystem services. Yet, reefs worldwide are faced with degradation by local human activities, a warming, rising and slowly acidifying ocean, and a changing disturbance regime. While cyclones have impacted coral reefs throughout their geological history, the first major episodes of coral ‘bleaching’ mortality caused by anomalously warm water occurred in the early 1980’s. Episodes of mass bleaching from marine heat waves now occur on reefs worldwide and are growing in frequency and severity as mean ocean temperature continues to rise. Thus, the disturbance regime of coral reefs now includes recurrent heat waves in addition to powerful storms. Our new research is motivated by a recent heat wave that caused more coral bleaching mortality at our site than any other heat wave in recent decades, and it builds on our long-term measurements and accumulated knowledge, including dynamical responses after a powerful cyclone in 2010. The proposed research centers on how the changing disturbance regime is altering the dynamics, function, and resilience of coral reefs, and is organized around three core questions:

  • How do material legacies from different disturbance types affect community dynamics, changes in state and resilience?
  • How do local stressors interact with new disturbance regimes to drive spatial heterogeneity in community dynamics, ecosystem processes, and spatial resilience?
  • How do disturbances generate information legacies in corals and coral reef communities that influence their resilience under current and future environmental conditions? Our research integrates the collection and analysis of long-term data, process studies, long-term field experiments, analytical and statistical modeling, cross-LTER site integration, and ecological synthesis.