Ocean heat around Florida is ‘unprecedented,’ and scientists are warning of major impacts

Scientists were astonished by a sudden marine heat wave off the coast of Florida that caused water temperatures to climb to previously unheard-of heights and threatened one of the worst coral bleaching episodes the state has ever experienced.

Since satellites started gathering ocean data, sea surface temperatures in the area of Florida have risen to their highest levels ever. And the warming is occurring considerably sooner than usual, which is another instance of how the human-caused climate crisis and the extreme weather it brings are amplifying ocean heat.

“We didn’t expect this heating to happen so early in the year and to be so extreme,” Derek Manzello, a coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch, told CNN. “Based on our records, this appears to be unprecedented.”

The excessive ocean heat and its length are crucial in determining the health of coral reefs. The unprecedented temperatures, which have reached close to 97 degrees Fahrenheit in certain places, are more than just another worrying climate record. Coral bleaches when exposed to excessive heat for an extended period of time. As they expel its algal food source, the coral progressively starves to death.

Even though coral that bleaches won’t necessarily perish, the longer and more severe the heat lasts, the more likely it is that the coral will perish, according to coral specialists.

According to Manzello, the heat stress that causes bleaching can start with just a sea surface rising of 1 degree Celsius, or 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit, above the reef’s typical peak temperature. Since one to two weeks ago, the sea surface temperatures around Florida have been more than 2 degrees Celsius above that normal range, according to him.

In the shallow, hot Florida Bay between the southernmost point of Florida and the Keys, buoys off the coast of Florida recorded water temperatures similar to those in a hot tub on Monday that were close to 97 degrees Fahrenheit. East and south of the Florida Keys are where the larger, more biologically significant coral reefs are found, but buoy readings show just how intense the heat in Florida has been.

According to Manzello, water temperatures near Florida typically increase as the summer wears on and peak in late August or early September. As a result, ocean temperatures may continue to rise.

According to him, this would indicate that “significant and severe” bleaching will begin within the next week and that the coral could begin to completely die within a month.

It’s yet unclear if this incident will be more or less catastrophic than earlier ones, according to Manzello. The current body of information, however, strongly suggests that it will be among the more severe disasters we have witnessed.

There are 6,000 distinct reefs in the Florida Keys, where bleaching has already begun. The Mote Marine Laboratory confirmed eleven partial bleaching observations in June. In the upcoming weeks, experts predicted that figure to increase dramatically.

‘Existential crisis’ for coral.

This past weekend, while diving at an unnamed reef off the coast of Islamorada, one of the northern Florida Keys, Katey Lesneski witnessed bleaching firsthand. Lesneki is in charge of monitoring for Mission: Iconic Reefs, a NOAA initiative that intends to grow coral and rehabilitate seven “iconic” reefs around the Florida Keys over the course of the following 20 years.

She claimed to have observed coral as deep as 60 feet exhibiting the early stages of bleaching.

According to Lesneski, who spoke to CNN, “the corals look a lot lighter in colour; they’re usually pretty robust tones of yellows, greens, browns, and oranges, but they start to look like someone threw bleach on them.”

According to a NOAA report from the previous year, climate change-related coral disease and bleaching had already destroyed 70% of Florida’s coral reefs. By the time Lesneski’s programme began in 2019, the seven reefs she is attempting to rebuild had decreased from having well over 50% coral cover to barely 2% coral cover.

The coral is not the only thing Florida is losing. Without coral reefs to safeguard the animals that rely on them, Florida’s economy would not be able to support the billions of dollars that are generated via tourism and fishing.

According to Lesneski, around 25% of marine species depend on coral reefs at some point in their lifecycle. The fish gain their start and eventually largely rely on other parts of the reef, from the attractive fish that people like looking at to the large game fish.

According to a recent study, the most recent coral catastrophe in Florida is just one example of the larger threat posed by climate change, which might result in the extinction of all coral reefs on Earth by 2100.

As Manzello put it, “what we’re seeing right now is another cut in a death by a thousand cuts.”

Coral reefs as we know them are in an existential crisis as a result of ocean warming, which is only getting worse and more frequent.

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