Does temperature variability promote coral reef resilience during a marine heatwave?

Raised of $20,000 Goal
Ended on 4/04/24
Campaign Ended
  • $45
  • 1%
  • Finished
    on 4/04/24

About This Project

Coral reefs are in serious danger. The southern Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is currently experiencing one of the most extreme marine heatwaves in recorded history. The goal of this project is to uncover how life-long exposure to variable thermal regimes influence coral community resilience during the 2024 marine heatwave. I will visit the GBR to download currently deployed temperature loggers and collect data on benthic cover and coral health across 6 sites, extending monitoring to its 10th year.

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What is the context of this research?

Coral reefs are among the most threatened ecosystems on Earth, with over half of the world's reef-building corals lost since 1950. Reef-building corals live at the upper edge of their thermal limits, and persistent temperatures just one degree above a coral's typical summer maximum can cause coral bleaching. Marine heatwaves resulting in mass coral bleaching are now occurring frequently, having gone from one mild event last century to as many as five per decade in modern times. Remarkably, thermally extreme or variable habitats provide a glimmer of hope that heatwave-resilient corals may exist on reefs worldwide. Corals within these habitats can tolerate temperature fluctuations of up to seven degrees per day - conditions which are not predicted to occur on ordinary reefs until 2100.

What is the significance of this project?

To significantly advance our understanding of coral heat tolerance in the Anthropocene, this project will combine nearly a decade of coral reef benthic cover data with high-resolution seawater temperature records. This dataset provides an invaluable baseline record and perfect opportunity to investigate: (i) how life-long exposure to diverse thermal regimes influence coral heat tolerance, and (ii) how these thresholds relate to coral community resilience during the unfolding 2024 marine heatwave. For the 500 million people who rely on coral reefs for food, tourism and coastal protection, a better understanding of how diverse coral communities develop thermal tolerance will allow us to effectively conserve and manage coral reef ecosystems in the Anthropocene.

What are the goals of the project?

Whether coral populations and communities acclimated and/or adapted to variable thermal conditions can resist bleaching during increasingly frequent and severe marine heatwaves remains a critical outstanding question. The goal of this project is to investigate how life-long exposure to variable thermal regimes influence coral heat tolerance and if elevated thermal thresholds equate to coral community resilience during the unfolding 2024 marine heatwave. Specifically, we will (i) collect and redeploy temperature sensors and (ii) perform benthic surveys through both traditional percent cover surveys and digital photogrammetry across 6 sites at Heron Island. Data will be compared to historical records to track changes in seawater temperatures, demographics, composition and cover.


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Over the last decade, I have been monitoring coral reef community composition and seawater temperatures across a range of thermally stable and thermally variable habitats across Heron Island, on the southern Great Barrier Reef. Funds are requested to travel from the United States to Heron Island, Australia, have a research team of 3 people stay at Heron Island for 3 weeks, and the costs for boating and diving (including vessel hire, fuel, SCUBA tank hire and air fills).

Endorsed by

This project is an important and urgent assessment of the impact of an ongoing marine heatwave on corals across Heron Reef on the GBR. Dr. Brown is perfectly poised to carry out this project, as she has been monitoring corals on this reef for 10+ years. This long-term dataset gives her the power to address important questions, like if coral performance is improving during repeat heatwaves in 2024 and 2020, and if corals in different habitats within a reef respond differently to the heatwave and may be refuges from coral bleaching.

Project Timeline

The experiment will start as soon as possible, between March-April 2024. Once on the ground at Heron Island, monitoring will begin. While in the field, we will share imagery and videos of the ongoing bleaching and prelimiary finding across social media. Once we return from the field, we will being the comparison to historical records. Finally, we plan to publish a our research findings by early next year (February 2025).

Mar 05, 2024

Project Launched

Apr 15, 2024

Travel to HeronĀ Island

Apr 20, 2024

Conduct reef monitoring

May 01, 2024

Share imagery and videosĀ from the field

Aug 15, 2024

Comparison of data to historical records

Meet the Team

Kristen Taylor Brown
Kristen Taylor Brown
Postdoctoral researcher


University of Pennsylvania
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Kristen Taylor Brown

I am a coral reef ecologist and award-winning underwater photographer who researches the effects of global change on coral reef ecosystems. I received my Ph.D. in coral reef ecology from the University of Queensland, Australia, where I spent countless hours underwater at Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef. My research uses hot and acidic coral reef environments as a natural laboratory to better understand how corals have acclimated to extremes and whether this will allow them to resist future changes.

Lab Notes

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Project Backers

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  • $45Total Donations
  • $22.50Average Donation
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