WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The brutal summer heat has ocean temperatures rising to a level that's slowly killing coral reefs, threatening a billion-dollar industry and leaving researchers stunned over what's to come.
Coral reefs are a lifeline for marine life, providing an astonishing view for millions. The reefs along Florida's coastline have become a hot topic lately.
"It seems that some of the most intense heat right now is concentrated on that Florida reef tract in the Keys, and that's where we have our corals," John Parkinson, a professor at the University of South Florida who studies coral reef ecosystems, said. "It's the worst place to have a blob of hot water."
He's most concerned by the current high water temperatures, which are normally seen in late August and September. Water temperatures on Thursday were hovering just below 90 degrees from the Palm Beaches to Key West.
"These corals are going to be at much higher temperatures than they are used to for a longer period, and that extended period and that extended duration is what really leads to bleaching," Parkinson said.
Bleaching happens when stressed corals lose their color and become white, according to Parkinson. It's basically a slow suffocation and death.
Mote Marine Lab in Key Largo documented evidence earlier this summer of coral bleaching in a June report. And just this week, temperatures in the water off Key Largo were 92 degrees. The ideal temperature for coral is 80-84 degrees.
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"They don't want to be exposed to temperatures in the 90s for very long. Corals in Florida have been hit with these back-to-back bleaching events every other year, so that they're not having a lot of time to recover," Parkinson said.
That could mean trouble for this billion-dollar industry. Florida's coral reef tract accounts for coastline protection, biodiversity, fishing and tourism. Its impact could drown the crown jewel of the Sunshine State.
"The indicators are extreme," Parkinson said. "This is an outrageous temperature, and it's outrageously earlier, so if it persists this way and we don't have some sort of mitigating factor to come in and lower that temperature, it could be more catastrophic than previous bleaching events."