Forecasting coral disease outbreaks across the tropical Pacific Ocean using satellite-derived data

This research is funded by NASA’s Ecological Forecasting Program (Applied Sciences Program).

Project Goal

The goal of the proposed research is to develop better models of coral disease outbreak risk across the western tropical Pacific Ocean (see map below) and embed these improved forecasts into the NOAA Coral Reef Watch decision support system.

Locations under development for coral disease forecasting project (map adapted from NOAA Ecosystem Science Division).


Project Team

Year 2 highlights

NASA Biodiversity and Ecological Forecasting Meeting and annual team meeting

  • In May 2018, we reflected on progress from year one and planned for year two of the project.
Team meeting in Washington, D.C.


Team dinner in Washington, D.C.

Expansion of diseases and regions

Hawaii highlights

  • We completed a new analysis of disease risk in the Hawaiian Archipelago comparing two disease types (tissue loss and growth anomalies) on five coral host species (Porites compressa, P. evermanni, P. lobata, Montipora capitata, and M. patula) in a new, more statistically robust analysis.
  • Our predictive accuracy ranged from 72 – 86 % depending on the disease type and host species.
  • Key findings of this analysis:
    • A comparison of species-level versus genus-level predictive models demonstrates that genus-level models are not more accurate than species-level models and that different host species – even in the same genus – can have different ecological drivers of disease risk.  This argues for dis-aggregating data from the genus to the species level whenever practical.
    • A case-control framework using a strategically selected subset of data (used in epidemiology for rare event analysis) strongly improves our ability to predict disease occurrence compared with more traditional statistical modeling approaches that use all the data with very low probability of occurrence.
    • The increased effectiveness of the case-control analysis suggests a new, more efficient case-control field sampling approach than the exhaustive sampling that has typically been undertaken by coral reef scientists.

Guam highlights

  • Model development for Guam is underway.
  • We are analyzing a unique dataset with nine years of repeated surveys of coral health across six sites in Guam collected by Dr. Laurie Raymundo, our partner from the University of Guam.
  • This initial model is focused on white syndromes and focuses on temporal variation in disease presence and severity.
  • Key findings of this analysis so far:
    • Thermal conditions in the winter months are an important predictor for white syndrome; this result has also been found for white syndromes on the Great Barrier Reef and Hawaii indicating consistency across regions.
    • Colony size is an important predictor of disease risk, supporting our other research results in Hawaii. This finding affirms the need to incorporate population size-structure in our forecasting user-interface, so that a user can adjust the disease risk prediction for the population size structure of the site of interest.

Outbreak response

  • A white syndrome outbreak occurred in December 2018 in Guam. Dr. Laurie Raymundo, our lead partner in Guam, notified our team and responded to the outbreak sampling a total of 104 healthy and diseased Pocillopora damicornis colonies across several sites in Guam. We will be using those samples in microbial, metabolomic, and histological analyses.
Pocillopora damicornis with white syndrome at Tumon Bay, Guam (Photo take on December 10, 2018).


Dr. Laurie Raymundo sampling a diseased coral colony at what is thought to be ground zero of the outbreak on the east coast of Guam.

Water quality indicators

  • We are developing metrics from NOAA MSL12 VIIRS ocean color data as a proxy for water quality, specifically looking at a 7-day temporal window and 5 pixel spatial buffer for climatologies and short-term metrics for chlorophyll and Kd490.
Year 1 highlights

Project kick-off meeting on Oahu & focus group

June 24-26, 2017

  • First annual team meeting held at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology
  • Drs. Bruce Monger (Cornell University), Joleah Lamb (Cornell University), Courtney Couch (University of Hawaii/NOAA Ecosystem Science Division), and Laurie Raymundo (University of Guam) joined the team meeting to provide complementary expertise on remote sensing of water quality and coral health research in key regions of interest
  • Preliminary field sampling in preparation for larger efforts planned for later in the year
  • Held a focus group for coral reef researchers and manager from across the region to gain feedback on project plan, user interest, and an interface for the coral disease forecasting product interface
  • Participants included scientists from:
    • The University of Hawaii (including Kewalo Marine Lab and the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology)
    • James Cook University (Australia)
    • NOAA Pacific Islands Regional Office
    • Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument
    • Maui Ocean Center
    • The Nature Conservancy
    • Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources
    • Kua Hawaii
    • American Samoa Coral Reef Advisory Group
    • Tetra Tech
    • U.S. Navy

Coral health surveys and sampling in Puako, West Hawaii &  West Maui

Puako, West Hawaii sampling, October 15-21, 2017:

  • With assistance from The Nature Conservancy, we conducted coral health surveys and sampled Porites lobata coral colonies from 12 sites in Puako
  • These surveys compliment a longer term effort to assess the relationship between water quality and coral health in the region
  • From the coral samples, we are characterizing coral metabolites and micriobiota in order to understand and quantify pre-visible coral stress response

West Maui sampling, March 12-26, 2018:

  • In collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and with support from the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources, we conducted coral health, coral recruit, and fish surveys, and collected water samples at 52 sites in West Maui
  • These surveys compliment a larger reef resilience effort from The Nature Conservancy
  • At 20 of the 52 sites, we collected coral samples of Montipora capitata and Porites lobata for metabolomic and microbial assays

Outreach Materials 

We’ve produced an informational 2-page overview of the project, and a flyer for outreach in areas where coral diseases of interest to the project may occur.  The project overview provides valuable background on Fore-C, and the flyer will be used to improve reporting of disease outbreaks relevant to Fore-C.

Get the project overview here: Fore-C Overview or check out the outreach flyer here: Outbreak Response Flyer

New SST dataset

We are now using the new NOAA Coral Reef Watch daily global 5km CoralTemp SST data product as a source dataset for producing coral disease-related temperature metrics.


2018 NASA Biodiversity and Ecological Forecasting Meeting. April 24-26, 2018 in Washington, D.C.

    • Oral presentation: Megan Donahue
    • Poster presentation: Scott F. Heron, Gang Liu, Jamie M. Caldwell, Megan Donahue, Austin Greene, William Leggat, Tracy D. Ainsworth, Bernardo Vargas-Angel, Courtney Couch, Bruce Monger, Joleah B. Lamb, Laurie J. Raymundo, Bette L. Willis, Erick F. Geiger, Jacqueline L. De La Cour, Ben Marsh, William J. Skirving, Kyle V. Tirak, C. Mark Eakin. Seasonal Forecasting of Coral Disease Outbreak Risk.

4th International Symposium on The Effects of Climate Change on The World’s Oceans. June 4-8, 2018 in Washington, DC – Poster Presentation

      • Scott F. Heron, Gang Liu, Jamie M. Caldwell, Megan Donahue, Austin Greene, William Leggat, Tracy D. Ainsworth, Bernardo Vargas-Angel, Courtney Couch, Bruce Monger, Joleah B. Lamb, Laurie J. Raymundo, Bette L. Willis, Erick F. Geiger, Jacqueline L. De La Cour, Ben Marsh, William J. Skirving, Kyle V. Tirak, C. Mark Eakin. Seasonal Forecasting of Coral Disease Outbreak Risk. 2018. 4th International Symposium on The Effects of Climate Change on The World’s Oceans. Washington, DC

103rd Meeting of the Ecological Society of America. August 6-9, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana – Oral presentation

    • Megan J. Donahue, Jamie M. Caldwell, Scott F. Heron, Tracy D. Ainsworth, William Leggat, Bernardo Vargas-Angel, Austin Greene, Erick F. Geiger, Gang Liu, Courtney Couch, Joleah B. Lamb, Bruce Monger, Laurie J. Raymundo, C. Mark Eakin. Fore-C:  Forecasting coral disease in the tropical Pacific.  Meeting of the Ecological Society of America, Aug 6-9, 2018.  New Orleans, LA

Symposium on Science in Support of Archipelagic Management. November 19-20, 2018 in Honolulu, Hawaii – Oral presentation

    • Jamie M. Caldwell, Greta S. Aeby, Scott F. Heron, C. Mark Eakin, Bernardo Vargas-Angel, Megan J. Donahue.   Investigating natural and anthropogenic drivers of coral diseases in the Hawaiian archipelago.  Symposium on Science in Support of Archipelagic Management, November 19-20, 2018.  Honolulu, Hawaii.

Reef Futures 2018 Symposium sponsored by Coral Restoration Consortium December 10-14, 2018 in Key Largo, Florida – Poster Presentation

  • Tess Moriarty, Bill Leggat, Tracy Ainsworth, Scott Heron, Mark Eakin, Bernardo Vargas-Angel, Courtney Couch, Bette L Willis, Jamie Caldwell, Gang Liu, Erick Geiger, Jacqueline L De La Cour, Bruce C Monger, Joleah B Lamb, Laurie J Raymundo, Austin Greene, Megan Donahue.  Houston we have a problem: Forecasting coral disease outbreaks in the Pacific Ocean.  Reef Futures 2018.  Key Largo, Florida.

Ocean Sciences Meeting, February 11-16, 2018 in Portland, OR – Oral presenter

Stanford University, February 20, 2018 in Stanford, CA – Oral presentation

  1. NOAA Coral Reef Watch, CoralTemp: A Daily Global 5km Sea Surface Temperature Dataset. CoralTemp: A Daily Global 5km Sea Surface Temperature Dataset (2018) available at
  2. Shore-Maggio A and Caldwell JM. Modes of coral disease transmission: how do diseases spread between individuals and among populations? (2019) Marine Biology 166:45.
  3. Greene A, Forsman Z, Toonen RJ, and Donahue MJ. CoralCam: A flexible, low-cost ecological monitoring platform. HardwareX 7 (2020): e00089. 
  4. Tracy AM, Pielmeier ML, Yoshioka RM, Heron SF, Harvell CD. Increases and decreases in marine disease reports in an era of global change. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 2019 Oct 9;286(1912):20191718.
  5. Brodnicke OB, Bourne DG, Heron SF, Pears RJ, Stella JS, Smith HA, Willis BL. Unravelling the links between heat stress, bleaching and disease: fate of tabular corals following a combined disease and bleaching event. Coral Reefs. 2019 Aug 15;38(4):591-603.
  6. Caldwell JM, Aeby G, Heron SF, and Donahue MJ. (2020) Case-control design identified ecological drivers of endemic coral diseases Scientific Reports 10, 2831.

Studying human disease reveals coral disease risk factors

Tools used to study human disease reveal coral disease risk factors



Researchers from JCU: James Cook University, Australia and the University of Hawaii have identified key factors increasing the risk of diseases, threatening our coral reefs.

Posted by WIN News Townsville on Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Oceana article:

Forecasting coral disease outbreaks across Pacific Ocean