Bleached staghorn coral. Image credit: mattk1979/Flickr
A month of bitterly cold weather has had a devastating effect on marine life in Florida. Much of the coastal ecosystem, researchers said, was protected by deep water and a warm gulf stream. Important shallow-water areas, however, dropped to dangerous levels—with water temperatures as low as 52 degrees in places—for devastatingly long periods of time.
Thousands of Animals Dead
Already 77 manatees, a record number, have been found dead. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have also reported massive fish kills across the state, with carcasses still floating to the surface.
In addition, more than 2,000 sea turtles have been found dead. Wallace J. Nichols, a research scientist at the California Academy of Sciences, commented that "when you're talking thousands of turtles being removed from a population of endangered species, it's certainly a concern."
Impact on Coral
Now, preliminary surveys of the state's shallow-water coral reefs are showing that the damage there is equally severe. In many of the reefs, researchers found coral that was not only bleached, but completely dead. Meaghan Johnson, marine science coordinator for The Nature Conservancy, commented that:
Corals didn't even have a chance to bleach. They just went straight to dead...it's really ecosystem-wide mortality.
In some areas, as much as 75 percent of the reef has died.
What is Coral Bleaching?
Bleaching occurs when the tiny, algae-like, protozoa that live on the coral and form the reef discolor or die completely. Coral bleaching can be caused by any stress on the fragile protozoa but is typically identified with warming waters.
Florida's reefs survived a severe cold period in 1977, the last year it snowed in Miami. During this time, extensive bleaching took place—from which the reefs have yet to recover.
This cold snap, researchers believe, has been even more damaging.
The Outlook for the Reefs
So far, low visibility has limited researcher's ability to conduct a thorough survey. Extensive study of the reefs, however, gives researchers cause for some guarded optimism. Chronicling what has died—and, perhaps more importantly, what has survived—will help future conservation efforts.
Billy Causey, Southeast regional director of national marine sanctuaries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, commented that "we're going to know so much more about this event than any other event in history."
This information will no doubt be invaluable as worldwide bleaching events become more and more common.
Read more about coral:
2,000 Endangered Sea Turtles Killed or Injured by Frigid Waters in Florida (Photos)
Coral Bleaching Creates a Vicious Cycle of Further Bleaching and Disease
This Could Be the Summer From Hell for Carribean Coral Reefs
Coral Can Recover from Climate Change Damage... In Marine Reserves