Florida coral in hot water as bath-like temperature poses risks

UAE and US form partnership to help save the 'lungs of the oceans'

Fish swim around a coral reef in Key West, Florida. AFP
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The heatwave baking the US and much of the globe is helping to raise water temperatures in Florida to such an extent that coral reefs are facing an existential threat.

Already hit by the effects of pollution, overfishing, disease and the destructive forces of hurricanes, ever-warmer water is heaping new misery on the fragile marine ecosystem.

In some parts of the Sunshine State, the water is now as hot as a bathtub, hitting 36.5°C near the Upper Keys last week.

Local organisations, including several supported by funding from the UAE, are urgently trying to save Florida's coral, which acts as the ocean's lungs as it pulls carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and pumps out oxygen.

Reefs are also natural barriers, protecting coastlines from flooding and storms, and breeding grounds for fish and other marine life.

Tim Gallaudet, a retired US Navy rear admiral and a leading oceanographer, said water temperatures are far above normal and could harm the corals' ability to reproduce.

“If the high temperatures persist for a few weeks, coral reefs could undergo bleaching or weaken as they expel the algae that inhabit their tissues,” Mr Gallaudet told The National.

“Even if coral bleaching doesn't occur, the conditions are already conducive to additional stress before the expected coral spawning in August.”

July 3 was the hottest day globally since records began, and climate scientists are warning that the world is falling far short of meeting targets to cut emissions and limit temperature rises.

Global sea surface temperatures have been at record highs since April, with the North Atlantic extremely warm since mid-March, meteorologists report.

“We are in uncharted territory and we can expect more records to fall,” Christopher Hewitt, the World Meteorological Organisation's director of climate services, told AP. “This is worrying news for the planet.”

In collaboration with local groups in southern Florida, the UAE has been working for more than three years to protect the Florida Reef Tract, through the Mission: Iconic Reefs initiative.

Mr Gallaudet, who was previously deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is now chief executive of Ocean STL Consulting, said the partnership between the US and the UAE is crucial to marine conservation.

In February 2020, the UAE announced a donation of $3.5 million to support the coral restoration efforts, administered by United Way of Collier and the Keys.

The loss of coral reefs can have cascading effects on the economy and culture of the Florida Keys region, which are deeply rooted in the local marine ecosystem.

The unique habitats generate billions of dollars in recreation and tourism for Florida.

Healthy coral reefs provide a habitat for commercially and recreationally important fish species, and marine animals including spiny lobsters and sea turtles.

“Local efforts have struggled to keep pace with the rate of decline,” Mr Gallaudet said. “This is where the UAE's partnership is instrumental in helping Florida to catch up.”

Marine biologist Jessica Dockery, the Reef Revitalisation Project Liaison at UWCK, said rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification, and more frequent and severe coral bleaching events are all consequences of climate change that can lead to the decline and destruction of coral reefs.

Preserving and restoring coral reefs is crucial for mitigating climate change and for their survival against the effects of climate change impacts.

“The joint effort between the United States and the United Arab Emirates not only aims to address the impacts of climate change, but also to protect and restore these invaluable coral reefs,” Ms Dockery told The National.

“By collaborating on this vital mission, we can secure a brighter future for our oceans, marine life and the communities that rely on them.”

The Florida Keys has the only barrier reef in North America and about 60 per cent of residents are dependent on the marine environment.

Globally, coral bleaching and dying are becoming more frequent with climate change, especially during an El Nino year, with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef losing half of its coral during the last supersized El Nino in 2016.

Updated: July 21, 2023, 6:00 PM