Rising Ocean Temps Devastate Florida’s Coral Reefs

Florida Coral Reefs at Risk: Rising Ocean Temperatures Trigger Bleaching Threat

SAN JOSE – As summer approaches, Florida’s coral reefs face another perilous season of extreme heat, with water temperatures already reaching concerning levels. Last summer’s catastrophic bleaching event, driven by record high coastal waters, saw an unprecedented toll on the reefs. This year, scientists fear the situation may worsen, as water temperatures in the Florida Keys are already nearing dangerous thresholds.

Derek Manzello, a coral reef ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), expressed his concern, stating, “It’s kinda crazy we are seeing these temperatures now. Before last year, we wouldn’t even think about it until August.” The early onset of high temperatures has prompted NOAA to issue its earliest ever coral bleaching watch, highlighting the urgency of the situation.

NOAA monitoring coral reefs.

The coral reefs, already struggling to recover from last summer’s heat, may not withstand back-to-back seasons of extreme temperatures. Last year, juvenile corals in underwater nurseries suffered significant losses, with an estimated half perishing. Corals begin to stress and expel the algae that give them their vibrant colors and essential nutrients when water temperatures reach a ‘bleaching threshold’ for a prolonged period, resulting in the corals turning a pale white.

Photo by: James Gilmour

Phanor Montoya-Maya, restoration program manager for the Coral Restoration Foundation, emphasized the ongoing challenges. His team continues to breed genetically diverse corals, which are more resilient to environmental changes. However, they have been on a voluntary coral planting hold since last June, awaiting more stable conditions.

“We’re exploring options like moving corals to deeper waters or further north, where bleaching was less severe last year,” Montoya-Maya said. “But for now, we pretty much sit and wait to see how reality is going to turn out.”

Florida’s coral reefs are not alone in this struggle. Since February, over 60 countries have reported mass coral bleaching events, driven primarily by climate change. Human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, contribute to ocean warming and alter the water’s chemistry. Increased storms and rising sea levels further exacerbate the damage by depositing sediment on the reefs.

Manzello warned that if current trends continue, we could witness the most extensive global bleaching event on record. Despite these challenges, there are glimmers of hope. Popular reefs like Cheeca Rocks in the Keys have shown resilience. “Despite the high water temperature, everything looked good, the coral all looked healthy, there was minimal disease, virtually no bleaching,” said Allyson DeMerlis, a coral researcher for NOAA and Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science.

Photo by: John Turnbull

Recovery efforts are underway, with NOAA and the Coral Restoration Foundation leading the charge. They have been preparing for another difficult year since last November. These efforts are crucial, not only for the survival of Florida’s reefs but also for the global coral ecosystems that face similar threats.

As we await the unfolding of this year’s summer temperatures, the fate of Florida’s coral reefs hangs in the balance. The urgency to address climate change and implement sustainable practices has never been clearer. Our actions today will determine the future of these vital marine ecosystems.

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