A model for wave control on coral breakage and species distribution in the Hawaiian Islands
The fringing reef off southern Molokai, Hawaii, is currently being studied as part of a multi-disciplinary project led by the US Geological Survey. As part of this study, modeling and field observations were utilized to help understand the physical controls on reef morphology and the distribution of different coral species. A model was developed that calculates wave-induced hydrodynamic forces on corals of a specific form and mechanical strength. From these calculations, the wave conditions under which specific species of corals would either be stable or would break due to the imposed wave-induced forces were determined. By combining this hydrodynamic force-balance model with various wave model output for different oceanographic conditions experienced in the study area, we were able to map the locations where specific coral species should be stable (not subject to frequent breakage) in the study area. The combined model output was then compared with data on coral species distribution and coral cover at 12 sites along Molokais south shore. Observations and modeling suggest that the transition from one coral species to another may occur when the ratio of the coral colonys mechanical strengths to the applied (wave-induced) forces may be as great as 5:1, and not less than 1:1 when corals would break. This implies that coral colonys mechanical strength and wave-induced forces may be important in defining gross coral community structure over large (orders of 10s of meters) spatial scales.