MIAMI — Across the state of Florida, our waterways are being impacted by a host of issues: rising temperatures, pollution, development, among other problems. But some areas are feeling it more than most.
Reporter Sophia Hernandez and photojournalist Antony Sherrod traveled across the state for a special series of reports we are calling "The State of our Seas."
"We've never seen anything like it," shared Andrew Baker.
Baker is a professor of Marine Biology and Ecology at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric and Earth Science. He is talking about the marine heat wave of 2023 — the culprit of the biggest coral bleaching event that Florida has ever seen.
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"Here in Florida, the last time we had a major bleaching event was actually back in 2014, which was nine years ago, and in the last nine years, we have not had a major bleaching event in Florida," Baker said. "The one we had beginning in July of 2023 is off the charts. It's unprecedented, both in terms of how bad it is, but more importantly in how early in the year it occurred."
Coral bleaching tends to take place in the hottest months of the year — August and September. The corals are animals that are home to biodiversity, creating animal forests with algae inside.
But when it gets too hot, the algae is no longer helpful. It's harmful.
"When corals get too hot, these partner algae who are in their cells instead of photosynthesizing and making food from sunlight, they become toxic and begin to produce chemicals that are toxic to corals, and it makes them want to get rid of the algae as quickly as possible, in this process that we call coral bleaching," Baker explained.
This summer, it devastated areas like the Florida Keys. The water there is typically about 85 degrees. According to NOAA, this summer it surpassed 92 degrees.
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As of August, the result was 29 extensively bleached reefs, and 39 and counting of reefs partially bleaching.
"My concern is that the corals here in Miami and Broward also begin to bleach severely just like they have in the Keys," Baker said.
It's why researchers in July rescued staghorn and elkhorn corals to try and preserve as many as they could before disaster struck.
But how can we protect the reefs that have yet to be affected?
Baker's team of scientists has created multiple possible solutions, including introducing corals to algae that are heat tolerant.
"It turns out when corals have these particular kinds of algal symbionts when they get heat stressed, they don't bleach, and they don't die," Baker explained.
They've already put this plan into action.
One of the labs is home to hundreds of thousands of microscopic baby corals that are being tested in batches to see if they can hold up to the heat.
Another thing they are trying? Breeding corals with other corals.
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"Can we source corals from around even the Caribbean, not just in Florida, that are home to corals that are more thermally tolerant because they live in naturally warmer areas?" Baker stated. "Can we breed those parents with Florida parents?"
"And will that produce an offspring that we can introduce to Florida's coral reefs … so we can actually restore some of the local diversity, but also introduce some of this new genetic diversity that might help them deal with a warmer climate."
That's also a study that's already underway.
For Baker, it's important that others understand not only how important the roughly 60 different species of corals in our region are to our unique biodiversity, but also how corals benefit us.
"I think the real underappreciated value of coral reefs comes from its value in protecting our coastlines from storms," Baker said. "It's becoming increasingly obvious that coral reefs just off of Miami-Dade County are worth hundreds of millions of dollars every year in avoided flood damage. Because reefs, by building these underwater breakwaters, are actually causing wave energy to break offshore instead of on the shoreline, and that reduces the amount of coastal flooding we see during storms, and that also reduces the amount of beach erosion."
It's a job that is so important that the Department of Defense even took an interest in it, contracting Baker and his partner Diego Lirman for five years to create a hybrid reef that could be used to protect our military bases.
A nature-based solution that uses corals with conventional methods like concrete or seawalls.
"Here in South Florida, we are incredibly low-lying. There is more exposed real estate to the impact of storms in Miami and Broward compared to any other place in the world," Baker said. "And yet we have coral reefs off our coastlines, and we should try to leverage their ability to protect all of that infrastructure. So, there is really no better place in the world to develop these solutions than South East Florida because we stand to have so much to lose."
So, while Baker and his team continue trying to beat the heat clock, they know their work is essential.
But still, so much has yet to be done.
"This is a mitigation strategy. We have the patients in the hospital room. This is triage, keeping the patient alive," Baker said. "But ultimately, we have to get the patient out of the hospital room, and that means making sure the environment is suitable for these corals to survive into the future, and that means taking action on climate."
The professor believes that we won't see another major bleaching event for years, but when we do, it could be much worse than what we are seeing this year.