Florida coral bleaching may go global

Bleached fluted brain coral, center and left, and bleached stone brain coral on the right. The photo was taken on August 1.

NOAA , coral reefs , Florida Keys , coral reefs , coral bleaching , climate change , warm oceans

Coral reefs off the coast of Florida are experiencing a mass bleaching event due to record high ocean temperatures, and early signs suggest a global mass bleaching event may be occurring.

“This is a very serious incident,” Derek Manzello, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Monitoring Program, said in a conference call with reporters Thursday. And it is especially fierce in the oceans off the coast of Florida.

Permanent damage to Florida’s reefs could have a significant economic impact on the state’s economy.

According to estimates compiled by NOAA, coral reefs provide between $678.8 million and $1.3 billion in economic benefits to Florida, including $577.5 million from recreational diving and snorkeling and $31.2 million from commercial fishing. Ian Enochs, a research ecologist at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, told reporters Thursday that the reefs support fishing and tourism and the associated hotels and restaurants in those coastal economies.

They are also the first line of defense against storm activity for coastal communities, Enochs said.

“Reefs are also really important for buffering storm energy and hurricane wave action, which can otherwise destroy our coastlines and coastal infrastructure,” Enochs said. “They are living walls that break the energy that hits our shores.”

About a quarter of marine life is associated with coral reefs at some point in their lives, Manzello said, and if reefs erode and lose “structural complexity,” they lose their ability to be home to many marine species.

Most of Southeast Florida and the Florida Keys are currently under a level two warning, which means bleaching and significant mortality are possible, according to NOAA definitions. The Sentinel climate research and monitoring site in the Florida Keys has recorded 100% coral bleaching since late July.

But coral reef scientists have identified reefs showing some degree of heat stress in waters stretching from Colombia to Cuba.

“Florida is only the tip of the iceberg,” Manzello said.

This is a photo of Cheeca Rocks, a coral reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, taken on June 30, 2023, before the coral bleaching event.

Photo courtesy of NOAA

This is a July 24, 2023 photo of Cheeca Rocks, a coral reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, after coral bleaching.

Photo courtesy of NOAA

Record warm oceans in an El Nino year

Coral reefs grow best in water temperatures between 73 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit. The sea surface temperature broke the previous record of 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit in the Florida Keys on July 9 and has exceeded that level 28 of the last 37 days, Manzello said.

When corals experience heat stress, they excrete zooxanthellae, an algal symbiont they need to survive. This is called coral bleaching.

Coral bleaching has occurred in Florida before. Since 1987, there have been eight mass coral bleaching events affecting the entire Florida Keys, Manzello said. But this year, heat stress started a full five to six weeks earlier than before, Manzello said, and is expected to last from late September to early October.

Corals can survive bleaching events if conditions moderate quickly enough, although they may be less able to reproduce and become more susceptible to disease after a few years. Some areas of coral in the Florida Keys are already experiencing accumulated heat stress, more than twice the amount scientists expected, Manzello said.

Ian Enochs observes corals at Cheeca Rocks in Florida on July 31.

Photo courtesy of NOAA

“We hear the word unprecedented thrown around all the time, but let me back it up with facts: Florida corals have never been so heat stressed. This heat has happened earlier than ever before,” Manzello said. “The big concern is that temperatures are reaching their seasonal peak right now, so this stress is going to continue for at least the next month. These corals are going to experience heat stress not only higher than before, but sooner than ever before. For a longer period of time than before. This , is key because the effects on corals depend on how high the heat stress is and how long it lasts.”

If a hurricane or tropical storm moves through Florida waters, these forecasts may moderate, as these storm events cool ocean waters and coral environments.

Although Florida coral has suffered the worst bleaching, scientists have found it off the coast of Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico, and Panama in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean, and in Belize, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Atlantic Ocean.

“We’re talking about thousands of miles of coral reefs under severe bleaching heat stress,” Manzello said.

Three global coral bleaching events have occurred: in 1998, 2010, and a three-year period from 2014 to 2017, which occurred after a strong El Niño weather event.

“So what’s important right now is that we’re still at the peak of a very strong El Nino,” Manzello said. El Nino is a weather pattern that has the potential to bring warmer temperatures and more extreme weather events. “It is too early to predict whether there will be a global bleaching event now, but if we compare what is happening now with what happened at the beginning of a past global bleaching event, the situation is worse now than before.” in 2014-2017.”

‘Herculean rescue effort’

In recent weeks, scientists have been making a significant and coordinated effort to save coral from the oceans off the coast of Florida.

Photo courtesy of NOAA

A massive and coordinated effort is underway to protect some of Florida’s corals that face existential threats. Some species have been moved to tanks located on land, while others are moved to deeper, cooler waters. Andy Bruckner, research coordinator for NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, told reporters on a call Thursday that about 150 corals and 300 coral fragments had been salvaged.

“This represents every single remaining unique genotype or genetic strain of these species known to exist on reefs in Florida,” Bruckner said. “It was a Herculean effort for what has been done so far.”

The unprecedented coral bleaching conditions are challenging for scientists and conservationists, but they’re getting on with it, Jennifer Koss, director of NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, told reporters Thursday.

“People are worried, they’re depressed, but at the same time, they’re getting involved and doing what they can because we all know that this is not a resource that we can afford to lose. We absolutely cannot stand to lose coral reefs,” Koss said. “The ecosystem and social values ​​they provide to coastal communities, particularly in southeast Florida and the Keys, are critical to sustaining their economies and the safety of the people who live there. As horrible as it is, we’re in it. , and we corals are in this situation.” We will fight to the death to make sure he gets enough time to recover.”

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