Tropical cyclone cooling combats region-wide coral bleaching
Coral bleaching has become more frequent and widespread as a result of rising sea surface temperature (SST). During a regional scale SST anomaly, reef exposure to thermal stress is patchy in part due to physical factors that reduce SST to provide thermal refuge. Tropical cyclones (TCs - hurricanes, typhoons) can induce temperature drops at spatial scales comparable to that of the SST anomaly itself. Such cyclone cooling can mitigate bleaching across broad areas when well-timed and appropriately located, yet the spatial and temporal prevalence of this phenomenon has not been quantified. Here, satellite SST and historical TC data are used to reconstruct cool wakes (n=46) across the Caribbean during two active TC seasons (2005 and 2010) where high thermal stress was widespread. Upon comparison of these datasets with thermal stress data from Coral Reef Watch and published accounts of bleaching, it is evident that TC cooling reduced thermal stress at a region-wide scale. The results show that during a mass bleaching event, TC cooling reduced thermal stress below critical levels to potentially mitigate bleaching at some reefs, and interrupted natural warming cycles to slow the build-up of thermal stress at others. Furthermore, reconstructed TC wave damage zones suggest that it was rare for more reef area to be damaged by waves than was cooled (only 12% of TCs). Extending the time series back to 1985 (n = 314), we estimate that for the recent period of enhanced TC activity (1995-2010), the annual probability that cooling and thermal stress co-occur is as high as 31% at some reefs. Quantifying such probabilities across the other tropical regions where both coral reefs and TCs exist is vital for improving our understanding of how reef exposure to rising SSTs may vary, and contributes to a basis for targeting reef conservation.