Featured News Forecasting coral disease risk

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Fri, 31 May 2024

Forecasting coral disease risk

The Great Barrier Reef. Image: Chad Taylor

A new tool to forecast coral diseases has been unveiled, providing environmental managers with disease risk predictions up to 12 weeks ahead and enabling them to proactively respond to disease outbreaks.

James Cook University’s Professor Scott Heron was part of a multi-institutional team from Australia and the United States that developed the system. He said coral reefs are the most biologically diverse, species-rich marine ecosystem on Earth.

“Coral reefs are culturally significant to Indigenous people throughout the world and provide food, jobs, recreation, medicine, and coastal protection from storms and erosion,” said Professor Heron.

Led by the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, the project assessed a combination of ecological and marine environmental conditions. The new Multi-Factor Coral Disease Risk tool predicts the risk of two disease types - white syndromes and growth anomalies - across reefs in the central and western Pacific and the Great Barrier Reef.

“While disease is a natural part of marine ecosystems, increased runoff, global climate change, and many human impacts stress corals and exacerbate disease. Outbreaks of disease can cause as much as 95% mortality in coral and tools like this help managers to understand and improve the chance of survival of these ecosystems,” said Professor Heron.

Lead author on the program, Princeton University’s Dr Jamie Caldwell, said the team are excited about the new tool.

“Reef stakeholders can use the tool to make decisions about how to manage coral health, similar to how we use weather forecasts to decide how to pack for an upcoming trip,” said Dr Caldwell.

Professor Heron said a key project element was the consultation with and input from coral reef managers from across the Pacific, including in Australia.

“We've also provided several training sessions in the various aspects of how the tool is used so that stakeholders in the varying locations have the best opportunity to inform effective reef management.”

The tool can be accessed through the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coral Reef Watch program.

Link to an article on the tool in the journal Ecological Applications here.

The Multi-Factor Coral Disease Risk Product was developed by the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii at Mānoa, in close collaboration with JCU, the University of Newcastle, the University of New South Wales and NOAA Coral Reef Watch, through the multi-year Fore-C project, "Forecasting coral disease outbreaks across the tropical Pacific Ocean using satellite-derived data," funded by the NASA Roses Ecological Forecasting grant NNX17AI21G.


Scott Heron
E: scott.heron@jcu.edu.au