Science News

Coral Reef Bleaching Widespread off Florida, Hawaii

The US is currently experiencing a massive coral die-off due to coral bleaching that could become the third global die-off in the last 20 years while endangering an already stressed type of ecosystem.

The phenomenon is called bleaching because coral lose their color when they push out algae due to raised temperatures. The bleaching also makes coral more susceptible to disease and increases the risk that they die, which is troubling for fish and other species that spawn and live in coral reefs. The coral itself is reduced to rocky rubble.

And it’s happening world wide.

NOAA scientists warn that coral are losing color and dying rapidly from the Florida Keys north to Palm Beach County, as part of what some are calling a global bleaching event. Direct observations from divers show that the bleaching stretches along entire reefs. It’s a significant problem because coral do not grow back quickly. What’s more, most of these corals have survived for hundreds of years, meaning that the current rise in temperatures is a key indicator of rising temperatures unlike any seen in their history.

According to scientists, the same thing is happening throughout the Pacific. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the last global coral bleaching event occurred in 1997 and 1998, when up to 20% of the world's coral reefs were lost. This one could be even worse.

Estimates are that the ocean temperatures in Hawaii right now are between 3 and 6 degrees above normal. Those temperatures are expected to peak on 3 October 2015. On that day, trained volunteers will coordinate a searches on four of the state’s islands, including the Big Island, to look for coral reef bleaching and report their observations to the Eyes of the Reef Network, a key part of assessment and reporting for conservation efforts in Hawaii.

Already, the world has lost over a third of its coral due to bleaching events. Hawaii has survived relatively unscathed, but the presence of extreme warming due to El Nino and global climate factors may mean the state is about to go through a serious event. According to the Associated Press, Hawaii is home to 85% of the coral under US jurisdiction, while Florida represents the only coral population of significance in the continental US.

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