Conditions are ripe for a global coral bleaching event: ‘Florida is just the tip of the iceberg’

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Photo 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 being hit by a mass bleaching event due to record high ocean temperatures. Photo 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 being hit by a mass bleaching event due to record high ocean temperatures, and early indications suggest a global mass bleaching event could be underway.

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

Permanent damage to Florida’s reefs could have notable economic impacts on the state’s economy.

Coral reefs provide between $678.8 million and $1.3 billion worth of economic benefit to Florida, including $577.5 million in recreational diving and snorkeling, and $31.2 million in commercial fishing, according to estimates compiled by NOAA. Reefs support fisheries and tourism and the associated hotels and restaurants in those coastal economies, said Ian Enochs, a research ecologist a NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, on a call with reporters on Thursday.

They’re also a first line of defense for coastal communities against storm activity, Enochs said.

“Reefs are also really important for buffering storm energy and hurricane wave action that would otherwise pummel our shorelines and our coastal infrastructure,” Enochs said. They are living walls which break that energy and prevent it from reaching our shores. The Sentinel climate research and monitoring site in the Florida Keys has recorded 100% coral bleaching since late July. 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 with some level of heat stress symptoms in waters stretching from Columbia to Cuba.

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

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

Photo courtesy NOAA

This is a photo of the coral reef called Cheeca Rocks, located within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, taken on July 24, 2023, after coral bleaching occurred.

Photo courtesy NOAA

Record hot oceans in an El Nino year

Coral reefs grow best in water temperatures between 73 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit. Manzello stated that the sea surface temperature in the Florida Keys broke its previous record of 89.6° Fahrenheit on July 9. It has exceeded this level for 28 out of 37 days. This is called coral bleaching.

Coral bleaching has happened before in Florida. Manzello says that since 1987 there have been eight coral bleaching events affecting the Florida Keys. But this year, the heat stress started a full five to six weeks earlier than ever before, Manzello said, and it’s expected to last through late September to early October.

Corals can recover from bleaching events if conditions moderate sufficiently quickly, although they may have reduced reproduction capability and greater susceptibility to disease for some years after. Manzello says that some corals in the Florida Keys have already experienced heat stress twice as much as scientists thought they could handle. Manzello stated that this heat was more intense than ever. “A major concern is the fact that temperatures are at their peak for the season right now. This stress will likely continue through next month.” Corals are going to experience heat stress at a higher level than they have ever experienced before. They will also be experiencing it earlier and for a longer period of time than before. The impact of heat stress on corals depends on how severe it is and for how long. “

These predictions could moderate if a hurricane or tropical storm comes through Florida waters because these storm events cool the ocean waters and the coral environments.

While Florida coral are suffering some of the worst bleaching, scientists have confirmed coral bleaching off the coast of Columbia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico, and Panama in the Eastern Tropical Pacific and off Belize, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands in the Atlantic.

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

There have been three global coral bleaching events: In 1998, 2010, and a three-year period from 2014 to 2017, which occurred on the heels of a strong El Nino weather event.

“So what is concerning now is that, again, we are right on the cusp of a very strong El Nino,” Manzello said. El Nino, a weather pattern with the potential to cause extreme weather and warmer temperatures, is one of three global coral bleaching events. The others were in 1998, 2010, and a three-year period from 2014 to 2017 that followed a strong El Nino weather event. “It’s too early to say whether there will be another global bleaching, but the current situation is worse than it was in 2014. “

A ‘Herculean rescue effort’

In recent weeks, scientists have been executing a significant and coordinated effort to rescue corals from the oceans off the coast of Florida.

Photo courtesy NOAA

A massive and coordinated effort is underway in Florida to protect some of the corals facing existential threats. Some coral species are now in land-based tanks while others have been relocated to cooler, deeper waters. Approximately 150 elkhorn coral and 300 staghorn coral fragments have been rescued, said Andy Bruckner, a research coordinator at NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, on Thursday’s call with reporters.

“This represents every remaining unique genotype or genetic strain of these species that’s known to exist in the reefs in Florida,” Bruckner said. It has been an Herculean task to get this far. “

The unprecedented coral bleaching conditions are hard for scientists and preservationists, but they’re leaning in, said Jennifer Koss, director of the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program, on the call with reporters on Thursday.

“People are anxious, they’re depressed, but at the same time, they’re pitching in and doing everything that they can because we all know, this is not a resource we can afford to lose. Koss stated that we cannot afford to lose the coral reefs. The ecosystem and social values they provide coastal communities in Florida, especially along the southeast coast and in the Keys is crucial to the sustainability of economies and safety for the people who live there. We’re fighting to the death, as terrible as this is. “