Coral reefs devastated by SWFL heat

Reporter: Elizabeth Biro Writer: Paul Dolan
Published: Updated:

Local coral reefs are reacting to the extreme heat that has been beating down on Southwest Florida all summer long.

Surface temperature readings of a reef around the Florida Keys reached higher than 100 degrees in July. It’s a trend that researchers predict is likely to continue. Nevertheless, coral restoration is offering some hope.

Snorkeling the coral reefs off the Florida Keys is like entering another planet. A vibrant display of dozens of species cultivated by nature over tens of thousands of years, yet the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says the demolition job humans have done took mere decades.

“We’ve lost significant coral coverage since the ’80s, and I believe the quote from NOAA is we’ve lost 90% of our reef structure,” said Rachel Morgan, a senior coral biologist from the Florida Aquarium.

Morgan has carefully observed the corals degrade, especially throughout the summer’s record-breaking marine heat wave.

“When we were diving in June, there wasn’t necessarily any sort of massive stress event,” said Morgan, “but going back in the middle to end of July was a pretty horrific scene underwater, where you’re just watching every coral colony, anything that was, honestly, that was still alive, was bleaching.”

Bleaching occurs when extremely warm water causes the coral to lose the algae it needs to survive, leaving them with a ghost-like hue. While it’s not actually a death sentence, Morgan notes they can only endure so much.

“Swimming up to one of our restoration sites and of 200 unique genotypes of staghorn coral that we’re really excited about planting in 2019 that looked fine on July 6, were all dead by July 20,” said Morgan.

While it’s a huge setback for those working in coral reef restoration, the local ecosystem still has to get through the rest of the summer.

“When you lose that coral coverage, a lot of things are going to start breaking down that rock structure, and so we may not see the effects in 5-10 years,” said Morgan. “But in 50 years, when sea levels continue to rise and if storms become more powerful, we’re going to lose a lot of the protective effects that they provide.”

Reefs cover less than 1% of the ocean but are home to 25% of marine species.

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