Florida’s barrier reefs are under severe threat thanks to rising sea temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean – and scientists are going to extreme measures to save them.
Surface water temperatures recently hit a record 38°C (101.1°F) after sitting around 32°C for several days in July. These hot tub-like temperatures are far above the 21-28°C in which coral can survive before they begin to bleach and ultimately die.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the waters surrounding southern Florida have not been this hot since satellite record-keeping began in 1985.
Anticipating that this may be the beginning of the end for many of these coral reefs, scientists have begun moving corals from the sea to climate-controlled labs. NOAA scientists have noted that the move is supposed to be temporary for rehabilitation and safekeeping, but it raises questions about what happens if these water temperatures become the new normal.
“It’s a sad reality that reef systems will be among some of the first major ecosystems to be devastated by climate change,” says Bernadette Howlett, Palladium Executive Officer. “But removing these coral from the water cannot be our only long term solution. Though it’s a necessary move to conserve these reefs, we need to scale investment into protecting these essential biodiverse ecosystems, as they’re critical for life both in and out of the ocean.”
As part of the rescue efforts, NOAA is collecting two living fragments from each genetically unique coral within the reefs and sending them to institutes where conservationists have been growing corals in labs and nurseries. The eventual goal is to restore them back to reefs.
The scene in Florida is a familiar one for Howlett and others in Australia, where the Great Barrier Reef – the planet’s biggest coral reef system – is under serious threat from both global warming and water pollution. According to a new report from UNESCO, despite the Australian government taking positive steps to protect the reef, it’s on track to be placed on the ‘in danger’ list in 2024.
There are immediate actions the state can take to remediate it.
A UN mission report from 2022 recommended several steps the federal and state governments should make to protect the reef, including accelerating improvements to water quality and a faster rollout out of the state’s sustainable fishing strategy. Though this alone is not enough to save the reefs from the many threats and effects of climate change, which include increasing global temperatures and water pollution.
“A critical step toward protecting coral reefs is to scale up the Reef Credit Scheme, which we’re participating in in Australia to reduce sediment run off into the Great Barrier Reef,” Howlett explains.
Reef Credits are tradeable units that quantify the work undertaken by landholders, particularly in the agriculture sector, to reduce pollutants entering the reef. These units represent an amount of dissolved inorganic nitrogen or fine sediment that’s prevented from entering catchments. The units are sold to government, the private sector, and philanthropists.
“We see this as an essential market mechanism that can be scaled globally to protect other essential reef ecosystems like those in Florida.” She adds that the reef credit markets can and should play an important role in attracting private capital to combat threats to reefs around the world.
So, as scientists race to save these essential coral reefs in the short term, there’s also a need to think about the long term and sustainable means to keeping reef systems alive in the face of increasing threats from climate change. Australia’s reef credit markets and private capital investments in projects that are stopping pollution and sediment runoff before it reaches the oceans are just some of the many examples of long term, sustainable solutions necessary for the survival of our coral and barrier reefs.
These projects need to begin today if there’s any hope for the reefs of tomorrow.
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or read 'Saving the Environment, One Reef Credit at a Time' or 'Kyeema Foundation Piloting Coral Reef Restoration Project'.