Coral in Florida Keys suffers lethal hit from cold

Jan 30, 2010 By Curtis Morgan

Bitter cold this month may have wiped out many of the shallow water corals in the Keys.

Scientists have only begun assessments, with dive teams looking for "bleaching" that is a telltale indicator of temperature stress in sensitive corals, but initial reports are bleak. The impact could extend from Key Largo through the Dry Tortugas west of Key West, a vast expanse that covers some of the prettiest and healthiest reefs in North America.

Given the depth and duration of frigid weather, Meaghan Johnson, marine science coordinator for The Nature Conservancy, expected to see losses. But she was stunned by what she saw when diving a patch reef 2.5 miles off Harry Harris Park in Key Largo.

Star and brain corals, large species that can take hundreds of years to grow, were as white and lifeless as bones, frozen to death. There were also dead , eels and parrotfish littering the bottom.

"Corals didn't even have a chance to bleach. They just went straight to dead," said Johnson, who joined teams of divers last week surveying reefs in the Keys National Marine Sanctuary. "It's really ecosystem-wide mortality."

The record chill that gripped South Florida for two weeks has taken a heavy toll on wildlife -- particularly marine life.

On Tuesday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported that record numbers of endangered manatees had already succumbed to the cold this year -- 77, according to a preliminary review. The previous record, 56, was set last year. Massive fish kills also have been reported across the state. Carcasses of snook and tarpon are still floating up from a large fish kill across Florida Bay and the shallow waters of Everglades National Park.

Many of the Florida Keys' signature diving destinations such as Carysfort, Molasses and Sombrero reefs _ as well as deeper reefs off Miami-Dade and Broward -- are believed to have escaped heavy losses, thanks to warming effects of the Gulf Stream. But shallower reefs took a serious, perhaps unprecedented hit, said Billy Causey, Southeast regional director of national marine sanctuaries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Coral-bleaching has struck the Keys in the past, most recently twice in the 1990s, preceding a die-off that claimed 30 percent of the reef tract. But those events, along with others that have hit reefs around the world, have usually been triggered by water hotter than what corals typically tolerate.

Healthy corals depend on a symbiotic relationship between polyps, the living tissues that slowly build the hard outer skeletons that give species distinctive shapes, and algae called zooxanthellae that give them their vibrant colors. But when ocean temperatures veer from their comfort zone too much or too long, the begin to shed that algae, turning dull or a bleached bone-white.

The effect usually doesn't immediately kill coral but can weaken it, slowing growth and leaving fragile reefs -- home to millions of fish, crabs and other animals -- more vulnerable to diseases, pollution and damage from boaters and divers.

Cold-water bleaching is unusual, last occurring in 1977, the year it snowed in Miami. It killed hundreds of acres of staghorn and elkhorn corals across the Keys. Neither species has recovered, both becoming the first corals to be federally listed as threatened in 2006.

This big chill, said Causey, shapes up worse.

"They were exposed to temperatures much colder, that went on longer, than what they were exposed to three decades ago," he said.

Typical winter lows in-shore hover in the mid- to high-60s in the Keys.

At its coldest more than a week ago, a Key Largo reef monitor recorded 52. At Munson Reef, just about a half-mile off the Newfound Harbor Keys near Big Pine Key, it hit 56.

At Munson Reef, said Cory Walter, a biologist for Mote Marine Laboratory in Summerland Key, scientists saw losses similar to what was reported off Key Largo. Dead eels, dead hogfish, dead coral -- including big coral head 5- to 6-feet wide, bleached white with only fringes of decaying tissue.

"They were as big, as tall, as me. They were pretty much dead," said Walter, who coordinates Mote's BleachWatch program, which monitors reefs.

The dividing line for damage seems to be Hawk Channel, which parallels the Keys on the Atlantic Ocean side.

East of the channel, at reefs such as Looe Key, one of the top tourist sites, there was only light paling on some coral, she said. In Hawk Channel itself, there were dead sponges and stressed corals but not many outright dead ones.

West of the channel toward shore, damage was more serious. Walter estimated 75 percent coral loss at one patch reef, though with poor visibility, it was a limited survey. Some nurseries growing small staghorn and elkhorn corals for restoration programs also may have been hard hit.

Over the next few weeks, scientists and divers from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, National Park Service, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, Mote Marine Laboratory, the University of Miami, Nova Southeastern University and other organizations will try to get a more complete picture of damage with reef surveys as far north as Martin County and as far south as the Dry Tortugas.

While they may not be able to save cold-damaged corals, Causey said, chronicling what dies and, more importantly, what survives, will help coral researchers in the future.

"We're going to know so much more about this event than any other event in history," he said.

Explore further: US top court to review power plant emissions rules

4.7 /5 (16 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Study finds seasonal seas save corals with 'tough love'

Nov 29, 2007

Finally, some good news about the prospects of coral reefs in the age of climate change. According to a new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society, corals may actually survive rising ocean temperatures ...

Two more corals become threatened species

May 08, 2006

Two types of corals have been declared threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act -- reportedly the first time coral has been placed on that list.

First Coral Species Listed as Threatened

May 24, 2006

Coral reefs, the most productive and diverse marine ecosystems in the world, are based on the coral organisms that build reefs. Drastic coral declines in the last 25 years have resulted in the listing of two ...

Recommended for you

Conservationists sue over federal coal program

9 hours ago

Conservation groups have sued the government to force federal officials to undertake the first broad environmental review of the government's coal-leasing program in decades.

Owner of ship that damaged reef to pay $840,000

11 hours ago

The federal government and the state of Hawaii have reached an agreement for damages from the owner of a cargo ship that harmed more than 100,000 coral colonies several years ago when it ran aground off Oahu.

User comments : 8

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

PeterROwen
Jan 30, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
LariAnn
3.9 / 5 (14) Jan 30, 2010
No, it is a nail in the coffin of the idea that if warming is taking place, cold events, such as this one, can never happen.
axemaster
3.4 / 5 (13) Jan 31, 2010
Global warming is the measure of the total amount of energy in Earth's environment. In other words the average temperature during the year. Local conditions vary widely, and are much harder to predict than the overall trend (which is well defined).

In general, global warming is expected to increase the number and severity of extreme weather events. Indeed, data on the number of such events shows a clear trend that agrees with predictions.

So this type of thing generally supports the predictions about global warming.
NameIsNotNick
3.1 / 5 (7) Jan 31, 2010
>Is this another nail in the Global Warming coffin?

No... you can't extrapolate a global trends over decades by one weather event... just as a heatwave doesn't support Global Warming. Your question seems to imply that there is serious doubt about the existence of Global Warming. There isn't! What the anti GW crowd don't seem to understand is that, even if the some of the assumptions are completely wrong ( far less consensus here ), since it is an existential threat, it must be taken seriously.
Doug_Huffman
2.4 / 5 (8) Jan 31, 2010
since it is an existential threat, it must be taken seriously.
Ho ho. Look to previous uses of 'existential threat' to see what flavor of koolaide is being served here. We are all born sick unto death, an existential promise that no one takes seriously.
RobertKLR
Jan 31, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
DachpyarviIe
3 / 5 (6) Jan 31, 2010
How do they know the corals have been dying? Where's the raw data to support their claim. they should have an effective control, where the water hasn't been as cold, like Greenland o make this study of any use. Just another part of the huge global conspiracy...:)
dsl5000
1 / 5 (3) Feb 01, 2010
Shoot we can barely forecast rain...looking 1 week into the future is generally way off base. We are predicting global warming several decades down the road? haha

We should worry more on o-zone layer being destroyed completely than a 1-6 degree C of warming over several decades.

Shoot at least o-zone restricts uvb rays which causes burns, dna mutations, cancer, cataracts, and plant pop damage, which is the base of our food chain.

If you take away the grass, you take away the cows...if you take away the cows..I'll be very angry because I like my steak.
TegiriNenashi
2.6 / 5 (5) Feb 01, 2010
In general, global warming is expected to increase the number and severity of extreme weather events.


Not this "increased extreme weather events" BS again. According to AGW hypothesis polar regions are expected to warm up the most, so this would diminish temperature gradients, wouldn't it?
dachpyarvile
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 02, 2010
dachpyarvile signing in and chiming in. Ignore the Dachpyarviie sockpuppet of MikeyK behind the curtain.

We know corals have been dying from the extreme cold because we can look at them and see that the coral animals indeed are dead. Further evidence of this can be seen in the fact that one actually can see various kinds of damage caused by extreme cold--if one knows what to look for.

There is no real need for a control when making visual observations of this kind. The recorded observations in this case are the raw data. That the sockpuppet above does not understand such things is evidence enough that he is clueless.
RJB26
Feb 07, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.