Hot Temperatures Could Mean Worst Caribbean Coral Die-Off in History

carribbean coral photo

Photo via Paul and Jill via Flickr Creative Commons

We've been hearing a lot of dire news about corals lately, and no wonder since many reefs are so sensitive to changes in water temperature. As the oceans warm, become more acidic, and experience more severe storms, corals are having a terrible time surviving, especially in the Caribbean where temperatures can get far too hot and bleaching occurs. But scientists show that perhaps this year will be the worst in recorded history for corals in the Caribbean, even worse than the devastation wrought in 2005 when 80% of corals were bleached and 40% died. This graphic from NOAA shows that ocean temperatures in the Carribean in 2010 are higher than in 2005, which could be dire news for the health of reefs.

noaa ocean temperatures graph image

Image via Climate Progress

According to Science, NOAA warned last summer that bleaching to the degree experienced in 2005 was again likely, but could be even worse according to the data illustrated above.

"I've never seen bleaching like [it] in Panama," said Nancy Knowlton, a coral biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama who has been studying the local flora for 25 years. She and colleague Hector Guzman have seen massive reefs die in recent weeks in the enclosed lagoon of Bocas del Toro in Panama after becoming coated with giant sheets of slime, the remains of dead microorganisms. "This is NOT a normal condition on reefs, even bleached reefs. Where last year there were healthy corals, this year there was only gray ooze," she wrote in an e-mail.

The mass bleaching isn't relegated to the Caribbean. Earlier in September we also heard from scientists that the corals in the Indian oceans suffered incredible bleaching rates from the 2009-2010 El Niño season, with about 95% of all corals experiencing bleaching, which could lead to death.

Corals are of vital importance to marine life, so the fact that they're experiencing such massive problems as temperatures warm is a major concern. While researchers have shown that some corals can come back from climate change damage, but it usually takes the added protection of marine preserves to help them do it. Right now, only about 1% of the ocean is protected by marine preserves, and it's still an uphill battle to protect all fragile coral ecosystems.

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