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Scientists issue warning about risk of 'near complete' death of coral off Florida coast — here's how it could affect local economies

At one of the study sites, none of the surveyed corals were found alive.

At one of the study sites, none of the surveyed corals were found alive.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

According to scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, most of the coral surveyed off the Florida Keys are dead after last year's record heatwave that caused prolonged warm ocean temperatures. 

What happened?

Scientists with the NOAA's Mission: Iconic Reef program surveyed five reefs around the Keys and found that less than a quarter of nearly 1,500 staghorn coral in a study set were still alive — and that was only at the northernmost corals off the coast of Key Largo, as reported by Axios. 

At one of the study sites in the lower keys, none of the surveyed corals were found alive.

Axios noted that the scientists have not yet completed their surveys of all reef areas.

In 2023, Florida experienced a record heatwave, but it wasn't just on land. Ocean waters around southern Florida and the Caribbean were more than five degrees Fahrenheit above normal. As a result, scientists created three new alert categories, including a Level 5 classification that indicates the risk of "near complete" coral mortality. 

As Axios explained, when water is too warm, a coral expels algae that live in its tissue and provide the coral with the nutrients it needs to live. This turns the coral white, known as coral bleaching, and it is a very bad sign. Bleaching leaves the coral more susceptible to the heat and can lead to its death.

Some of the coral was bred on land and planted between 2020 and 2022, but it was only bred to withstand temperatures about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, according to CNN.

Why is it concerning?

Thousands of species of fish call coral reefs home, but the reefs are equally important to the state's economy. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says that the reefs bring in an estimated $1.1 billion a year and are responsible for 71,000 jobs in South Florida. 

Healthy reefs also act as a barrier against large waves caused by extreme weather, protecting against coastal erosion and damage to property. 

What's being done to save the coral?

Scientists with the NOAA are doing all they can to save the coral. They removed in-water nursery corals, placed them in nurseries on land, and then re-planted them once ocean temperatures cooled down, Axios reported. That isn't viable long term, though, especially if the planet continues to warm and summers like 2023 become more common.

But saving the coral reefs isn't just up to the scientists. Every day people can do their part by limiting their contribution to pollution that's harmful to the planet. Even if you're not in a position to buy an electric vehicle or install solar panels on your home, taking public transit or doing something as simple as unplugging your devices when they're not in use can go a long way.

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