Miami researchers scramble to save Florida’s coral reefs amidst record ocean heat wave

MIAMI (KXAN) — As a record-setting ocean heat wave continues, sending coastal Florida water temperatures occasionally over 100 degrees, coral reefs are dying at an unprecedented rate. But a team of University of Miami researchers, led by Dr. Andrew Baker, is doing something about it.

“It’s pretty bad,” Baker said. “This is the worst coral bleaching event that we’ve had on record, since scientists have begun studying that reef.”

Although reefs are protected from some of the hottest coastal temperatures measured this summer in Florida, temperatures are still far above normal. Baker said this results in massive bleaching episodes where the coral loses their color and turns white.

“If that fever doesn’t break pretty soon, a lot of these corals are going to go ahead and die,” Baker said.

Why is this important?

Coral reefs are home to a diversity of species equivalent to the rainforest. Between one-quarter and one-third of all marine species depend on coral at some point in their lifespan, Baker said.

Coral reefs also protect coastlines from damaging hurricanes. In flat coastal regions like South Florida, coral reefs dissipate wave energy offshore, preventing more severe damage inland.

Saving the coral

One year ago, Baker and his team began a project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense that involved building hybrid reefs — incorporating real coral into an artificial underwater structure. The coral is also engineered to be more tolerant to higher ocean temperatures.

Projects like this, Baker said, are cheaper than building traditional coastal protections such as sea walls, like the one in Galveston.

What happens next?

“I think here in Florida, the best case scenario is that temperatures go down sharply from now and and these corals get a chance to recover,” Baker said. “But going forward, we know that this is going to keep getting worse as time goes on, and we really need to take serious action to alleviate the root cause of this which is greenhouse gas emissions.”

He said that coral reefs may be the first species to reach global extinction because of climate change.

“The question is, can we still rebuild the reefs from what we’ve got left, and how can we engineer and science our way out of this and buy these corals some time while we get the climate crisis under control,” Baker said.

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