The Bummer Summer of 2023 continues. There have been heat waves each summer for the last few years, but this summer’s heat feels different. It seems like we’ve crossed some kind of tipping point. In the Florida Keys, the ocean water got so hot that it caused unprecedented coral bleaching, a mass mortality event. CNN is reporting that even more of the bleached corals are likely to die in coming weeks. Some of the ocean water temperatures in the region exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which is way too hot for coral reefs.
An urgent rescue operation is underway to save Florida coral species from extinction as a mass bleaching event and die-off from unprecedented water temperatures spreads across reefs in the the Florida Keys.
Multiple reefs around the Florida Keys are now completely bleached or dead in a grim escalation that took place in as little as two weeks, coral experts told CNN.
Experts now say they expect “complete mortality” of the bleached reefs in just a week, and worry reefs at greater depths could face the same fate if the unprecedented ocean warmth continues to escalate.
Extreme heat and a lack of rain and wind pushed water temperatures around Florida to some of the highest levels ever observed anywhere. A buoy in the Florida Bay hit 101.1 degrees Fahrenheit at a depth of 5 feet Monday, in an area where coral is scant. Many other stations in the area topped 96 degrees, including one that hit 99 degrees, according to the National Data Buoy Center.
The most significant concentration of coral isn’t located in the shallower Florida Bay, where the readings were taken, but that matters little for coral around the Florida Keys baking in water temperatures topping 90 degrees.
Coral is extremely sensitive to temperature changes. Temperatures that are too hot for too long cause coral to bleach and turn white as they expel their algal food source and slowly starve to death. The water is typically in mid-80s in the region, experts said.
Temperatures at a reef managed by the Florida Aquarium were 91 degrees on July 6. The coral was completely healthy then, but when aquarium teams returned on July 19, all of the coral was bleached and an estimated 80% of it was dead. Another report from the Coral Restoration Foundation found “100% coral mortality” at Sombrero Reef off the coast of Marathon in the Florida Keys.
“This is akin to all of the trees in the rainforest dying,” Keri O’Neil, the director and senior scientist at the Florida Aquarium, told CNN. “Where do all of the other animals that rely on the rainforest go to live? This is the underwater version of the trees in the rainforest disappearing. Corals serve that same fundamental role.”
Scientists are working on rescuing as much of the coral as they can, but 10% of the coral is still dying in the lab so far. Coral restoration scientists are truly doing heroic work. Two years ago there was a crazy heat wave in Washington State. I happened to be camping there on the Olympic Peninsula, the lush coastal rain forest that Edward Cullen referred to as the “wettest place in the continental US”. It was 114 degrees in the shade and so humid (because it’s a rainforest!) that the sweat on our bodies was not evaporating. We went to the beach to cool off and a completely rank, foul smell was coming off the ocean, so we didn’t go in it. I thought it was a red tide, which is gross but common enough. But it was actually the smell of millions of bivalves (clams and mussels) dying. Crabs were also cooked alive and killed from the ocean temperatures. This coral reef die off is even more catastrophic. I am hoping that more people wake up to what is going on and overcome any lingering denial about the effects of climate change. It has never been more urgent, the stakes have never been higher, for us to divest from fossil fuels and begin the thousand-year cleanup.
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