Scientist on dying coral: ‘If this doesn’t wake people up, I don’t know what will’

Efforts ongoing to save South Florida reefs amid historic heat wave

MONROE COUNTY, Fla. – South Florida’s coral reefs continue to suffer the effects of this unprecedented summer heat wave that shows no end in sight.

It’s especially catastrophic because since the 1980s, the state’s barrier reef, the third largest in the world, has already lost more than 90% of its coral cover. Now the race is on to save what precious corals we have left.

About a mile off the coast of Upper Matecumbe Key, Local 10 News’ Louis Aguirre set off with a team of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists to survey a treasured South Florida reef: Cheeca Rocks, which for weeks has been sun-scorched by Earth’s hottest July ever recorded.

Ian Enochs leads the coral program at the NOAA lab in Miami.

“We’re seeing 100% bleaching,” he said. “That’s crazy. It’s absolutely crazy.”

Cheeca Rocks is an important NOAA climate monitoring site, heavily documented to have some of the most resilient and oldest corals in the sea.

“If this doesn’t wake people up, I don’t know what will,” Enochs said.

Even before diving in, they could see the devastation from the surface.

“It’s pretty intense,” said Enochs.

Some of these corals are over a hundred years old and may be lost forever.

“This is so depressing,” said Aguirre.

The Middle Keys are seeing the worst of it.

Ocean surface temperatures there are bathtub hot, topping 90 degrees for three straight weeks, causing corals to lose their symbiotic algae that feed them and give them color. So they pale, bleach and slowly starve to death.

“I have not seen a coral out there that is not affected by bleaching,” said Enochs. “Literally the flesh is just coming off of them.”

“To see it like this is heartbreaking. You’re not supposed to be emotional as a scientist.”

Coral scientists like Enochs are visibly frustrated. In 2018, the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change warned that if we don’t urgently mitigate the enormous amount of greenhouse gases emissions, the Earth could lose what little could lose what little coral it has left.

As global temperatures continue to inch closer to increasing past that 1.5 degree Celsius threshold, a mass bleaching event was imminent.

“We’ve known that this is going to happen, I think we’ve just been taken aback by the speed with which how, with which this, this event has unfolded and how early on in the season, it’s occurred,” said Andrew Baker, Professor of Marine Biology and Ecology at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science.

The reason why this is so devastating is that this is happening in July. We haven’t still hit those high temperatures that we normally see in August and September.

A bleached coral is not a dead coral, but if ocean temperatures don’t cool back down to normal, below 84 degrees Fahrenheit, the corals won’t get the break they need to bounce back.

“Even if we have a relatively normal summer going forward, these corals are now so weak, and so bleached that any additional heat stress accumulating on them can push them over the edge,” said Baker.

That’s why for almost two weeks now, from Key West to Key Biscayne, an army of restoration practitioners have been in the water, rescuing the corals they’ve been fostering for years in offshore nurseries, bringing them inland to controlled settings where they can regulate temperature and cool them back down, like the Rescue a Reef labs at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School.

“We went out there and we recovered as many of our vulnerable corals as we could,” said Dalton Hesley, Senior Research Associate with the Rosenstiel School.

They are the corals of tomorrow. Many are endangered, some more resilient to heat, disease and other stress factors and may hold the key to saving the reefs of the future.

Mote Marine Lab and Aquarium was able to rescue more than 30,000 of theirs.

“This is the Noah’s Ark for the future,” said Michael P. Crosby, President and CEO of Mote Marine Laboratory. “There will be continuing new threats that will come up, and we have to ensure that as we’re restoring these coral reefs, we’re doing it not just with species diversity, but also with genetic diversity.”

Added Baker: “We’re going to have to science our way out of this, but it’s also going to take a lot of political action, centrally to realize that no matter how resilient we make our reefs unless we get the root cause behind this, which is climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution… unless we get those under control, coral reefs don’t have a chance.”

According to NOAA, Florida’s coral reefs generate $2 billion in local revenue and over 70,000 jobs, but losing our reefs would be more than just a blow to our economy, but also our resiliency.

Coral reefs are our first line of defense against storm surge and coastal erosion.

A healthy reef can absorb up to 97% of a wave’s energy, so it’s in all our best interest to save our coral reefs.

HOW YOU CAN HELP: BleachWatch | Coral Reef Monitoring & Assessment | Research Programs | Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.