Highly variable response of hard coral taxa to successive coral bleaching events (2019-2020) and rising ocean temperatures in Northeast Peninsular Malaysia.

Szereday and Amri

1 Mar 2022

Pre-print of our research article on the first back-to-back coral bleaching events in Malaysia.


Due to current greenhouse gas emissions, Malaysian coral reefs are predicted to experience severe annual coral bleaching events by 2043, threatening the survival of coral reefs within this century. However, there is no field data on how Malaysian coral reefs respond to successive events of coral bleaching. Despite the notion that many scleractinian taxa exhibit increased thermal tolerance over the last decade, it remains unresolved whether these changes are a result of ‘weeding out’ thermally susceptible species and actually ameliorate accelerating warming rates and increasing frequencies of heat disturbances. Moreover, complex interaction of environmental and biological factors that underlie differences in the bleaching response necessitate conducting studies at the within-reef scale (i.e., leeward shallow, windward shallow). Here, we studied two successive thermal stress events starting during the 2019 El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), and determined bleaching trajectories of 29 hard coral taxa across fine spatio-temporal gradients in Northeast Peninsular Malaysia. Analysis of climate trajectories affirms accelerating warming rates (0.17°C per decade) and higher return-frequency of heat disturbance. Despite high annual maximum temperatures above the putative bleaching threshold (31.07°C and 31.74°C, respectively), accumulated thermal stress was low during both bleaching episodes (Degree Heating Weeks of 1.05°C-weeks and 0.18°C-weeks, respectively), suggesting widespread thermal sensitivity of hard coral taxa (55.21% and 26.63% bleaching incidence in 2019 and 2020, respectively). However, significant discrepancies between satellite and in-situ temperature data were found (0.63°C; SD±0.26). Bleaching severity was highly taxon-specific, varied across and within reef scales due to wind exposure and depth (e.g., less bleaching at shallow windward sites), and partially contrasted historical bleaching observations (e.g., Acropora and Montipora were less susceptible, Cyphastrea, Echinopora, Goniastrea, Heliopora and Porites were highly susceptible). While bleaching severity was higher in 2019, Galaxea and Leptastrea were bleaching more in 2020 despite lower heat stress, suggesting negative legacy effects of the 2019 bleaching event on these taxa. In conclusion, hard corals were subjected to more frequent heat stress during the last decade and remain highly vulnerable to marine heatwaves across all biophysical reef scales. Annual coral bleaching impacted all hard coral taxa and reduced thermal tolerance in at least two taxa.