Sergeant major fish (Abudefduf saxatilis) swims around a coral reef in Key West, Florida on July 14, 2023. JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images
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In summer, the waters of the Keys are normally reminiscent of bathwater, but such high temperatures can threaten Coral reefs. And it’s still quite early in the season. Thermal stress typically affects corals the most in August and September, The New York Times reported.
“We are entering uncharted territory,” said Derek Manzello, ecologist and coordinator of NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch program, as reported by The New York Times.
The longest exceptionally high temperatures finally, the more stressed the corals can be, reported The Conversation. Part of the reason is that, unlike other Marine animalscorals cannot swim in search of a cooler place.
Coral reefs are so colorful and vibrant because they have the most biodiversity of any marine ecosystem, according to the The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Although they cover only 0.2% of the seabed, coral reefs are home to around 25% of all ocean life.
The warming of the waters due to climate change can be so damaging to corals because they are so sensitive to changes of a degree or two.
The planet’s oceans absorb the excess heat generated by the combustion of fossil fuels, and when the water temperature gets too high, the corals expel the algae they feed on, turning them white, The New York Times reported. If the waters remain warm for too long, or if bleaching events occur too close together, corals may not recover.
According to a studythe world has lost half of its living corals since the 1950s.
Corals “host a microscopic symbiotic seaweed called zooxanthellae which performs photosynthesis like plants, providing food for the coral. When the surrounding waters get too warm for too long, the zooxanthellae leave the coral and the coral can turn pale or white,” NOAA ecology researcher Ian Enochs wrote in The Conversation. “If corals remain bleached, they can become energetically compromised and eventually die. When corals die or their growth slows, these beautiful complex reef habitats begin to disappear and can eventually erode into sand.
About 70% of the reefs in the Florida Keys have become “net erosionfound a study published in November last year, meaning more habitat is being lost than built.
“Building these reefs took corals tens of thousands of years. Decimating them only took humans decades. Since the late 1970s, healthy coral blanket in the Florida Keys fell 90%,” Climate.gov reported.
Coral bleaching has been observed recently in other parts of the world, including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico, Colombia, Belize and Panama, The Conversation reported.
The main cause of the current marine heat wave is human-caused global warming, which has been exacerbated by El Niño. Fortunately, massive coral death has not yet been observed with this extreme episode of ocean warming.
“Large-scale coral bleaching has only really been documented since the early 1980s. When I talk to people who have been fishing and diving in the Florida Keys since before I was born, they have incredible stories about the vitality of the reefs. They know firsthand how bad things have gotten because they’ve lived through them,” Enochs wrote in The Conversation. “There is currently no single miracle solution, but ignoring the harm done is not an option. There is simply too much at stake.”