Hurricanes and caribbean coral reefs: Impacts, recovery patterns, and role in long-term decline

Toby A. Gardner, Isabelle M. Cote, Jennifer Gill, Alastair Grant, Andrew R. Watkinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

293 Citations (Scopus)


The decline of corals on tropical reefs is usually ascribed to a combination of natural and anthropogenic factors, but the relative importance of these causes remains unclear. In this paper, we attempt to quantify the contribution of hurricanes to Caribbean coral cover decline over the past two decades using meta-analyses. Our study included published and unpublished data from 286 coral reef sites monitored for variable lengths of time between 1980 and 2001. Of these, 177 sites had experienced hurricane impacts during their period of survey. Across the Caribbean, coral cover is reduced by ~17%, on average, in the year following a hurricane impact. The magnitude of this immediate loss increases with hurricane intensity and with the time elapsed since the last impact. In the following year, no further loss is discernible, but the decline in cover then resumes on impacted sites at a rate similar to the regional background rate of decline for nonimpacted sites. There is no evidence of recovery to a pre-storm state for at least eight years after impact. Overall, coral cover at sites impacted by a hurricane has declined at a significantly faster rate (6% per annum) than nonimpacted sites (2% per annum), due almost exclusively to higher rates of loss in the year after impact in the 1980s. While hurricanes, through their immediate impacts, appear to have contributed to changing coral cover on many Caribbean reefs in the 1980s, the similar decline in coral cover at impacted and nonimpacted sites in the 1990s suggests that other stressors are now relatively more important in driving the overall pattern of change in coral cover in this region. The overall lack of post-hurricane recovery points to a general impairment of the regeneration potential of Caribbean coral reefs.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)174-184
Number of pages11
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2005

Cite this