New manuscript shows that warming has reversed long-standing environmental gradients on eastern Pacific coral reefs

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A recent manuscript published by Research Oceanographer Lauren Toth with academic collaborators suggest that ocean warming is shifting which environments in Pacific Panama will support coral reefs in the future.

A small concrete block has 2 coral samples glued to it on purple pads. It is anchored to the coral reef.

Photograph of one station at Uva reef in spring 2016 used to evaluate the ecological condition of reefs in Pacific Panama. The rebar stakes in the background mark a permanent quadrat used to monitor reef condition and the corals affixed to the cinderblock in the foreground were used to assess coral growth and mortality. The photo shows significant bleaching of corals at this site in response to the 2015–2016 El Nino event. (Credit: Lauren Toth, USGS. Public domain.)

Reefs off the Pacific coast of Panama provide an ideal natural laboratory to study the influence of oceanographic and climatic variability on coral-reef ecosystems.

In the Gulf of Panama, reefs are exposed to strong seasonal upwelling, whereas upwelling is weak in the Gulf of Chiriqui. For millennia, conditions in the Gulf of Chiriqui have been warmer and more stable than in the Gulf of Panama, favoring more rapid coral growth and more extensive reef accretion. However, a recent study by Research Oceanographer Lauren Toth and academic colleagues published in the journal Ecology showed that in contrast to historical trends, the abundance of living coral, coral survival, and coral growth rates are all now significantly higher in the Gulf of Panama.

Over the last 150 years, temperatures have risen at a much faster rate in the Gulf of Chiriqui, and, during the 2015–2016 El Niño event, corals bleached extensively there, whereas upwelling in the Gulf of Panama moderated the high temperatures caused by El Niño, allowing the corals largely to escape thermal stress. The study suggests that as the climate continues to warm, upwelling zones may offer a temporary, localized refuge from the thermal impacts of climate change.

This research was conducted as part a NSF-funded project awarded to Toth and collaborators at Florida Institute of Technology, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the USGS Coral Reef Ecosystem Studies (CREST) project. It was conducted in collaboration with researchers at the Australian Institute of Marine Science Florida Institute of Technology, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

The publication can be found at


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Date published: October 5, 2018
Status: Active

Coral Reef Ecosystem Studies (CREST)

The specific objectives of this project are to identify and describe the processes that are important in determining rates of coral-reef construction. How quickly the skeletons of calcifying organisms accumulate to form massive barrier-reef structure is determined by processes of both construction (how fast organisms grow and reproduce) and destruction (how fast reefs break down by mechanical...