Life in Hot Water

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August 22, 2021 by Helen Hill

story by Helen Hill for MITgcm
​Researchers at the University of Hawaii Manoa and the Coral Reef Research Foundation, Palau use ECCO state estimates in their study of how western tropical Pacific temperature conditions impact coral bleaching.

Bo Qiu and Shuiming Chen (U. Hawaii) and Patrick Colin (Palau) ​have been ​investigating how upper-ocean circulation impacts coral reef health in the western tropical Pacific Ocean, A paper describing their work appears in Geophysical Research Letters.

Bo Qiu is a professor of Oceanography at SOEST (the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology) at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. His scientific interests include large-scale ocean circulation variability, mid-latitude air-sea interaction, geophysical fluid dynamics, and satellite oceanography.

Reef ecosystems rely on a relationship between the coral polyps and symbiotic algae that live within the coral,” Qiu explains. “A rise in ​the ambient temperature causes the algae to be expelled. Unless the thermal stress is removed the coral will die within weeks.

The researchers report that around the ​500+ island archipelago ​of Palau ​in the western ​tropical ​Pacific, ​moderate to severe coral bleaching occurred in 1998, 2010, 2016, 2017, and 2020. Combining in-situ water temperature data with analysis of the output from a data-assimilated ocean state estimate​ based on the latest (version 4, release 4) version of the ECCO state estimate, ​the team presents evidence that coral bleaching severity in the western tropical Pacific does not depend simply on the intensities of the conventional tropical El-Niño and La Niña events.

​”​We find evidence that regional intrinsic ocean variability and upper ocean thermal structures pre-conditioned by the region’s ​interannually-varying circulation​​ ​also ​play critical roles in controlling the thermal stress levels for coral reefs around Palau,” says Qiu.​ The study is supported by NASA’s Physical Oceanography Program.

ECCO version 4 release 4 (v4r4) covers the period 1992-2017, and represents ECCO’s latest ocean state estimate. An updated edition to that is described by Forget et al. (2015, Geosci. Model Dev.). Version 4 is the first multi-decadal ECCO estimate that is truly global, including the Arctic Ocean. ECCO synthesizes ocean observations with MITgcm model fields to provide global high-resolution coupled ocean/sea-ice/biochemical state estimates to the research community. The Release 4 edition, which you can read about it in more detail here, includes improvements in time-period (1992-2017), model (e.g., sea-ice), observations (e.g., GRACE, Aquarius), and constraints (e.g., correlated errors).

To find out more about this work contact Bo

Story image: Bleached coral – By Acropora at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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Do you have news about research using MITgcm? We are looking for contributions to these pages. If you have an interesting MITgcm project (ocean, atmosphere, sea-ice, physics, biology or otherwise) that you want to tell people about, get in touch. To make a post, contact Helen