Towards modelling the future risk of cyclone wave damage to the world's coral reefs

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Tropical cyclones generate extreme waves that can damage coral reef communities. Recovery typically requires up to a decade, driving the trajectory of coral community structure. Coral reefs have evolved over millennia with cyclones. Increasingly, however, processes of recovery are interrupted and compromised by additional pressures (thermal stress, pollution, diseases, predators). Understanding how cyclones interact with other pressures to threaten coral reefs underpins spatial prioritization of conservation and management interventions. Models that simulate coral responses to cumulative pressures often assume that the worst cyclone wave damage occurs within ~100 km of the track. However, we show major coral loss at exposed sites up to 800 km from a cyclone that was both strong (high sustained wind speeds >=33 m/s) and big (widespread circulation >~300 km), using numerical wave models and field data from northwest Australia. We then calculate the return time of big and strong cyclones, big cyclones of any strength and strong cyclones of any size, for each of 150 coral reef ecoregions using a global data set of past cyclones from 1985 to 2015. For the coral ecoregions that regularly were exposed to cyclones during that time, we find that 75% of them were exposed to at least one cyclone that was both big and strong. Return intervals of big and strong cyclones are already less than 5 years for 13 ecoregions, primarily in the cyclone-prone NW Pacific, and less than 10 years for an additional 14 ecoregions. We identify ecoregions likely at higher risk in future given projected changes in cyclone activity. Robust quantification of the spatial distribution of likely cyclone wave damage is vital not only for understanding past coral response to pressures, but also for predicting how this may change as the climate continues to warm and the relative frequency of the strongest cyclones rises.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4302-4315
Number of pages14
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2020


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