Great Florida coral reef system could be lost forever due to climate change

MELBOURNE, Fla. — Climate change gets a lot of publicity over how it’s changing life on land as temperatures rise. However, a new study finds a vital part of ocean life around the continental United States may also change forever unless things change soon. Researchers at the Florida Institute of Technology say the great Florida coral reef system could be lost forever due to the continuing effects of climate change.

Warming seas are driving marine life to shift their geographic ranges to higher latitudes. However, those living off the coast of the idyllic southern state won’t even be able to make that move. Scientists say they are being caught between intolerably hot tropical waters and increasingly frequent cold snaps.

“It’s just not as simple as predicting the corals will move north,” says lead author Dr. Lauren Toth from the U.S. Geological Survey in a university release.

“Thousands of years ago, corals and coral reefs moved north along Florida’s east coast when the climate warmed, but things are different now. Rapid climate change looks to be increasing the number of cold fronts from the polar vortex that are dipping down into Florida.”

Losing a coral reef would also devastate the economy

The warning follows calls from The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to have the Great Barrier Reef put on a list of World Heritage Sites “in danger” due to climate change. Florida’s reef system is the third-largest in the world, stretching 350 miles down the eastern seaboard of the U.S.

Nearly 1,400 species of plants and animals and 500 species of fish live there. They include the threatened green sea turtle, West Indian manatee, and smalltooth sawfish. Spiny lobster, snapper, and grouper find shelter, food, and breeding sites in these coral reefs as well.

When it comes to fishing and the local human population, the great Florida coral reef supports 70,000 jobs and is worth around $4.4 billion in local sales.

Corals are colonies of animals related to sea anemones. They lay down limestone to make reefs that protect shorelines from storm waves. Corals also provide a habitat for fish that feed half-a-billion people globally. They are fed by single celled algae that live inside. The microscopic creatures make carbohydrates from photosynthesis. They are already in dire condition and listed as endangered.

Will sea life simply move elsewhere?

The study in Scientific Reports shows with no where to go corals will decline even more drastically than feared. Climate change is raising temperatures and disrupting the tight, symbiotic relationship — to the point reefs are vanishing all over the world.

One common prediction is they will simply migrate north and re-appear where the water is cooler. For instance, staghorn coral (a major constructor of Caribbean reefs) has recently begun to grow north of Miami as the climate has warmed. However, its prospects for building reefs that far north will be severely limited by cold fronts which climate change is making more common. More regular freezes in Florida will prevent their re-establishment away from the tropics.

“All of us on the Eastern Seaboard know the jet stream is wobbling more and dipping southward more frequently, bringing us bad winter storms and bitterly cold weather. The corals along Florida’s east coast will be hammered from the north by freezes on the anvil of rising temperatures in the south. They won’t be able to shift locations from the Florida Keys to the east coast,” explains co-author Dr. Richard Aronson, a marine scientist at Florida Tech.

Building up Florida may be tearing down the environment

Fellow researcher Dr. William Precht, a marine biologist who consults for Dial Cordy and Associates, Inc. in Florida adds there are serious implications. Those concerns go beyond corals’ essential ecological importance to people’s financial and physical well-being.

“That is a very obvious reason why Floridians—and everyone else for that matter—should be concerned about the impacts of climate change on corals,” Precht says.

Overfishing, development, and pollution have all contributed to the Florida reef’s decline, but climate change is its biggest threat to date. Recent research suggests it has cut this ecosystem in half since the industrial revolution and its disappearance is speeding up.

Fishing off the Florida Keys has intensified and roads and cities continue to take up more and more land. Researchers say this has increased pollution and altered the flow of freshwater, sediments, and nutrients in the area.

Experts say governments need to meet U.N. targets to hold temperature rises worldwide. If the oceans continue to absorb CO2, bleaching will worsen. Corals are intolerant both of temperature and salinity change. It takes a rise of only one degree Celsius for a few weeks or extreme rainfall for them to die.

Last year, a study projected that coral reefs around the world could disappear by 2100 as the oceans get hotter and more acidic. That would spell the end of the Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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