When depth is no refuge: cumulative thermal stress increases with depth in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Neal, BP, Condit C, Liu G, dos Santos S, Kahru M, Mitchell BG, Kline DI.  2014.  When depth is no refuge: cumulative thermal stress increases with depth in Bocas del Toro, Panama. Coral Reefs. 33:193-205.

Date Published:



bleaching, caribbean, climate-change, coral-reefs, depth stratification, impacts, long-term, mortality, resilience, surface, Temperature stress, temperature-variation


Coral reefs are increasingly affected by high-temperature stress events and associated bleaching. Monitoring and predicting these events have largely utilized sea surface temperature data, due to the convenience of using large-scale remotely sensed satellite measurements. However, coral bleaching has been observed to vary in severity throughout the water column, and variations in coral thermal stress across depths have not yet been well investigated. In this study, in situ water temperature data from 1999 to 2011 from three depths were used to calculate thermal stress on a coral reef in Bahia Almirante, Bocas del Toro, Panama, which was compared to satellite surface temperature data and thermal stress calculations for the same area and time period from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coral Reef Watch Satellite Bleaching Alert system. The results show similar total cumulative annual thermal stress for both the surface and depth-stratified data, but with a striking difference in the distribution of that stress among the depth strata during different high-temperature events, with the greatest thermal stress unusually recorded at the deepest measured depth during the most severe bleaching event in 2005. Temperature records indicate that a strong density-driven temperature inversion may have formed in this location in that year, contributing to the persistence and intensity of bleaching disturbance at depth. These results indicate that depth may not provide a stress refuge from high water temperature events in some situations, and in this case, the water properties at depth appear to have contributed to greater coral bleaching at depth compared to near-surface locations. This case study demonstrates the importance of incorporating depth-stratified temperature monitoring and small-scale oceanographic and hydrologic data for understanding and predicting local reef responses to elevated water temperature events.