Wyatt et al. 2023

scientific article | Nature communications

Hidden heatwaves and severe coral bleaching linked to mesoscale eddies and thermocline dynamics

Wyatt AS, Leichter JJ, Washburn L, Kui L, Edmunds PJ, Burgess SC


The severity of marine heatwaves (MHWs) that are increasingly impacting ocean ecosystems, including vulnerable coral reefs, has primarily been assessed using remotely sensed sea-surface temperatures (SSTs), without information relevant to heating across ecosystem depths. Here, using a rare combination of SST, high-resolution in-situ temperatures, and sea level anomalies observed over 15 years near Moorea, French Polynesia, we document subsurface MHWs that have been paradoxical in comparison to SST metrics and associated with unexpected coral bleaching across depths. Variations in the depth range and severity of MHWs was driven by mesoscale (10s to 100s of km) eddies that altered sea levels and thermocline depths and decreased (2007, 2017 and 2019) or increased (2012, 2015, 2016) internal-wave cooling. Pronounced eddy-induced reductions in internal waves during early 2019 contributed to a prolonged subsurface MHW and unexpectedly severe coral bleaching, with subsequent mortality offsetting almost a decade of coral recovery. Variability in mesoscale eddy fields, and thus thermocline depths, is expected to increase with climate change, which, along with strengthening and deepening stratification, could increase the occurrence of subsurface MHWs over ecosystems historically insulated from surface ocean heating by the cooling effects of internal waves.

Depth range
0- 40 m

Mesophotic “mentions”
4 x (total of 9724 words)

* Presents original data
* Focused on 'mesophotic' depth range
* Focused on 'mesophotic coral ecosystem'

Climate Change
Long-term monitoring

Scleractinia (Hard Corals)

French Polynesia

In-situ instrumentation

Author profiles