Jul 26, 2023 - Climate

As ocean temperatures hit 101°F, scientists rush to move corals

A parrotfish swims around a coral reef in Key West, Florida, on July 16. Photo: JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP/Getty Images

Scientists in the Florida Keys have moved roughly 1,500 coral specimens from the ocean into tanks on land, hoping to save them as unprecedented water temperatures spur a massive coral bleaching event.

Why it matters: When water is too warm, corals expel algae that lives in their tissues, which causes them to turn white in an event known as coral bleaching, per NOAA. This can lead to die-offs, Axios' Rebecca Falconer reports.

  • Coral reefs provide shelter for more than 25% of ocean animals and are economically key to over half a billion people's livelihoods.

What's happening: The Keys Marine Laboratory — operated by the Florida Institute of Oceanography and hosted by the University of South Florida (USF) — is housing coral specimens harvested this past week from offshore nurseries and parent colonies, USF announced in a news release Monday.

  • Many are rare and endangered species.
  • The lab is located on Long Key, around the midpoint of the Florida Keys.
  • The lab's 60 temperature-controlled tanks range in size from 40 to 1,000 gallons and have capacity to house thousands more corals.

The big picture: Ocean temperatures are hitting historic highs, alarming scientists.

  • "Typically, water temperatures at this time of year are in the mid-80s," KML director Cynthia Lewis said in the USF news release.
  • Sea surface temperatures just north of Key Largo hit a record of 101°F on Monday, per Tampa Bay meteorologist Jeff Berardelli.
  • Noting that Antarctic sea ice coverage is far below normal, University of Miami researcher Brian McNoldy tweeted Monday, "There's a growing fear that some tipping point has been reached."

Separately, scientists from the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) visited the Sombrero Reef near Marathon last week.

  • "What we found was unimaginable — 100% coral mortality," said Phanor Montoya-Maya, a restoration program manager at the foundation, in a statement. "We have also lost almost all the corals in the Looe Key Nursery in the Lower Keys."
  • "Climate change is our present reality," CRF CEO Scott Winters said in the statement. "This crisis must serve as a wake-up call."

What's next: Corals will likely be housed at the Keys Marine Laboratory for months.

  • Once temperatures normalize, scientists can reattach them to reefs using epoxy, cement, zip ties and nails.
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