Oceanography The Official Magazine of
The Oceanography Society
Volume 31 Issue 04

View Issue TOC
Volume 31, No. 4
Pages 184 - 188

HANDS-ON OCEANOGRAPHY • How Do Upwelling and El Niño Impact Coral Reef Growth? A Guided, Inquiry-Based Lesson

Philip M. Gravinese Lauren T. TothCarly J. RandallRichard B. Aronson
First Paragraph

PURPOSE OF ACTIVITY. This lesson uses real-world data to guide students toward understanding how climate and ocean variables impact coral reef growth. To begin this activity, students hypothesize how changes in environmental conditions could affect coral reef growth. They then compare metrics for reef growth (linear growth and percent coral cover) between two reefs in Pacific Panamá that are located in oceanographically and environmentally different embayments, or gulfs. A discussion following the first two activities allows the students to explore possible reasons for the observed differences between the reefs. Students then use their data to calculate a carbonate budget to estimate the rate of reef growth in each gulf. The purpose of calculating a carbonate budget is to provide students with an opportunity to estimate how variables such as coral growth rates, percent coral cover, and bioerosion contribute to the long-term potential for accretion or deterioration of coral reefs.


Gravinese, P.M., L.T. Toth, C.J. Randall, and R.B. Aronson. 2018. How do upwelling and El Niño impact coral reef growth? A guided, inquiry-based lesson. Oceanography 31(4):184–188, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2018.424.

Supplementary Materials

Notes for the Instructor (38 KB pdf)
Student Activity Sheet (1.4 MB pdf)
Handout S1 (9.0 MB pdf)
Handout S2 (10.3 MB pdf)
Handout S3 (2.5 MB pdf)
Handout S4 (3.9 MB pdf)
> Answer Key (2.4 MB pdf)


Anthony, K.R.N., S.R. Connolly, and O. Hoegh-Guldberg. 2007. Bleaching, energetics, and coral mortality risk: Effects of temperature, light, and sediment regime. Limnology and Oceanography 52(2):716–726, https://doi.org/10.4319/lo.2007.52.2.0716.

Aronson, R.B., W.F. Precht, I.G., Macintyre, and T.J.T. Murdoch. 2000. Ecosystems: Coral bleach-out in Belize. Nature 405(6782):36, https://doi.org/​10.1038/35011132.

Boleman, C. L., P.M. Gravinese, E.N. Muse, A.E. Marston, and J.G. Windsor. 2013. Corals on acid: An inquiry-based activity leading students to a better understanding of ocean acidification impacts. Oceanography 26(4):164–169, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2013.87.

Bruno, J.F., and E.R. Selig. 2007. Regional decline of coral cover in the Indo-Pacific: Timing, extent, and subregional comparisons. PLoS ONE 2(8):711, https://doi.org/​10.1371/journal.pone.0000711.

Cantin, N.E., A.L. Cohen, K.B. Karnauskas, A.M. Tarrant, and D.C. McCorkle. 2010. Ocean warming slows coral growth in the central Red Sea. Science 329(5989):322–325, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1190182.

Cohen, A.L. and M. Holcomb. 2009. Why corals care about ocean acidification: Uncovering the mechanism. Oceanography 22(4):118–127, https://doi.org/​10.5670/oceanog.2009.102.

Collins, M., S.I. An, W. Cai, A. Ganachaud, E. Guilyardi, F.F. Jin, M. Jochum, M. Lengaigne, S. Power, A. Timmermann, and others. 2010. The impact of global warming on the tropical Pacific Ocean and El Niño. Nature Geoscience 3(6):391–397, https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo868.

De’ath, G., J.M. Lough, and K.E. Fabricius. 2009. Declining coral calcification on the Great Barrier Reef. Science 323(5910):116–119, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1165283.

Enochs, I.C., D.P. Manzello, R.D. Carlton, D.M. Graham, R. Ruzicka, and M.A. Colella. 2015. Ocean acidification enhances the bioerosion of a common coral reef sponge: Implications for the persistence of the Florida Reef Tract. Bulletin of Marine Science 91(2):271–290, https://doi.org/10.5343/bms.2014.1045.

Gardner, T.A., I.M. Côté, J.A. Gill, A. Grant, and A.R. Watkinson. 2003. Long-term region-wide declines in Caribbean corals. Science 301(5635):958–960, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1086050.

Garrison, T.G. 2013. Oceanography: An Invitation to Marine Science, 8th ed. Brooks Cole/CEngage Learning, Belmont, CA, 608 pp.

Glynn, P.W. 1993. Coral reef bleaching: Ecological perspectives. Coral Reefs 12(1):1–17, https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00303779.

Glynn, P.W. 1997. Bioerosion and coral-reef growth: A dynamic balance. Pp. 68–94 in Life and Death of Coral Reefs. C. Birkeland, ed., Chapman and Hall, New York.

Glynn, P.W., and I.G. Macintyre. 1977. Growth rate and age of coral reefs on the Pacific coast of Panamá. Pp. 251–259 in Proceedings of the 3rd International Coral Reef Symposium, vol. 2. D.L. Taylor, ed., Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, Miami, Florida.

Glynn, P.W., J.L. Maté, A.C. Baker, and M.O. Calderón. 2001. Coral bleaching and mortality in Panamá and Ecuador during the 1997–1998 El Niño–Southern Oscillation event: Spatial/temporal patterns and comparisons with the 1982–1983 event. Bulletin of Marine Science 69(1):79–109.

Glynn, P.W., A.B. Mones, G.P. Podestá, A. Colbert, and M.W. Colgan. 2017. El Niño–Southern Oscillation: Effects on eastern Pacific coral reefs and associated biota. Pp. 251–290 in Coral Reefs of the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Springer, Dordrecht.

Hughes, T.P., J.T. Kerry, A.H. Baird, S.R. Connolly, A. Dietzel, C.M. Eakin, S.F. Heron, A.S. Hoey, M.O. Hoogenboom, G. Liu, and others. 2018. Global warming transforms coral reef assemblages. Nature 556:492–496, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0041-2.

Kennedy, E.V., C.T. Perry, P.R. Halloran, R. Iglesias-Prieto, C.H.L. Schönberg, M. Wisshak, A.U. Form, J.P. Carricart-Ganivet, M. Fine, C.M. Eakin, and others. 2013. Avoiding coral reef functional collapse requires local and global action. Current Biology 23(10):912–918, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2013.04.020.

Kuffner, I.B., and L.T. Toth. 2016. A geological perspective on the degradation and conservation of western Atlantic coral reefs. Conservation Biology 30(4):706–715, https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.12725.

Lesser, M.P., and J.H. Farrell. 2004. Exposure to solar radiation increases damage to both host tissues and algal symbionts of corals during thermal stress. Coral Reefs 23(3):367–377, https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-004-0392-z.

Manzello, D.P. 2010. Coral growth with thermal stress and ocean acidification: Lessons from the eastern tropical Pacific. Coral Reefs 29(3):749–758, https://doi.org/​10.1007/s00338-010-0623-4.

Manzello, D.P., J.A. Kleypas, D.A. Budd, C.M. Eakin, P.W. Glynn, and C. Langdon. 2008. Poorly cemented coral reefs of the eastern tropical Pacific: Possible insights into reef development in a high-CO2 world. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 105(30):10,450–10,455, https://doi.org.10/1073/pnas.0712167105.

Perry, C.T., L. Alvarez-Filip, N.A.J. Graham, P.J. Mumby, S.K. Wilson, P.S. Kench, D.P. Manzello, K.M. Morgan, A.B.A. Slangen, D.P. Thomson, and others. 2018. Loss of coral reef growth capacity to track future increases in sea level. Nature 558(7710):396–400, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0194-z.

Perry, C.T., E.N. Edinger, P.S. Kench, G.N. Murphy, S.G. Smithers, R.S. Steneck, and P.J. Mumby. 2012. Estimating rates of biologically driven coral reef framework production and erosion: A new census-based carbonate budget methodology and applications to the reefs of Bonaire. Coral Reefs 31(3):853–868, https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-012-0901-4.

Perry, C.T., G.N. Murphy, P.S. Kench, S.G. Smithers, E.N. Edinger, R.S. Steneck, and P.J. Mumby. 2013. Caribbean-wide decline in carbonate production threatens coral reef growth. Nature Communications 4(1402):1–7, https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms2409.

Toth, L.T., R.B. Aronson, K.M. Cobb, H. Cheng, R.L. Edwards, P.R. Grothe, and H.R. Sayani. 2015. Climatic and biotic thresholds of coral-reef shutdown. Nature Climate Change 5(4):369–374, https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2541.

Toth, L.T., R.B. Aronson, S.V. Vollmer, J.W. Hobbs, D.H. Urrego, H. Cheng, I.C. Enochs, D.J. Combosch, R. van Woesik and I.G. Macintyre. 2012. ENSO drove 2500-year collapse of eastern Pacific coral reefs. Science 337(6090):81–84, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1221168.

Toth, L.T., I.B. Kuffner, A. Stathakopoulos, and E.A. Shinn. 2018. A 3000-year lag between the geological and ecological shutdown of Florida’s coral reefs. Global Change Biology 24(11):5,471–5,483, https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.14389.

Toth, L.T., I.G. Macintyre, and R.B. Aronson. 2017. Holocene reef development in the tropical eastern Pacific. Pp. 177–201 in Coral Reefs of the Eastern Pacific: Persistence and Loss in a Dynamic Environment. P.W. Glynn, D.P. Manzello, and I.C. Enochs, eds, Springer-Verlag, New York, https://doi.org/​10.1007/​978-94-​017-7499-4_6.