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March 31, 2006

Record Die-Off Of Caribbean Coral Environment

Centuries-old Caribbean coral reefs are dying, quite suddenly, just in the past few months. AP (via ENN):

A one-two punch of bleaching from record hot water followed by disease has killed ancient and delicate coral in the biggest loss of reefs scientists have ever seen in Caribbean waters.

Researchers from around the globe are scrambling to figure out the extent of the loss. Early conservative estimates from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands find that about one-third of the coral in official monitoring sites has recently died.

"It's an unprecedented die-off," said National Park Service fisheries biologist Jeff Miller, who last week checked 40 stations in the Virgin Islands. "The mortality that we're seeing now is of the extremely slow-growing reef-building corals. These are corals that are the foundation of the reef ... We're talking colonies that were here when Columbus came by have died in the past three to four months."

Some of the devastated coral can never be replaced because it only grows the width of one dime a year, Miller said.

Coral reefs are the basis for a multibillion-dollar tourism and commercial fishing economy in the Caribbean. Key fish species use coral as habitat and feeding grounds. Reefs limit the damage from hurricanes and tsunamis. More recently they are being touted as possible sources for new medicines. [...]

On Sunday, [Puerto Rican biologist Edwin] Hernandez-Delgado found a colony of 800-year-old star coral — more than 13 feet high — that had just died in the waters off Puerto Rico.

"We did lose entire colonies," he said. "This is something we have never seen before." [...]

"We haven't seen an event of this magnitude in the Caribbean before," said Mark Eakin, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch.

The Caribbean is actually better off than areas of the Indian and Pacific ocean where mortality rates — mostly from warming waters — have been in the 90 percent range in past years, said Tom Goreau of the Global Coral Reef Alliance. Goreau called what's happening worldwide "an underwater holocaust."

And with global warming, scientists are pessimistic about the future of coral reefs.

"The prognosis is not good," said biochemistry professor M. James Crabbe of the University of Luton near London. In early April, he will investigate coral reef mortality in Jamaica. "If you want to see a coral reef, go now, because they just won't survive in their current state." [...]

New NOAA sea surface temperature figures show the sustained heating in the Caribbean last summer and fall was by far the worst in 21 years of satellite monitoring, Eakin said.

"The 2005 event is bigger than all the previous 20 years combined," he said.

What happened in the Caribbean would be the equivalent of every city in the United States recording a record high temperature at the same time, Eakin said. And it remained hot for weeks, even months, stressing the coral. [...]

"This is probably a harbinger of things to come," said John Rollino, the chief scientist for the Bahamian Reef Survey. "The coral bleaching is probably more a symptom of disease — the widespread global environmental degradation — that's going on."

Crabbe said evidence of global warming is overwhelming.

"The big problem for coral is the question of whether they can adapt sufficiently quickly to cope with climate change," Crabbe said. "I think the evidence we have at the moment is: No, they can't. [Emphasis added]

The global effects of global warming are not some vague threats somewhere off in the indefinite future. They're happening now, more suddenly and more quickly than anyone anticipated. This is the challenge for our time.

Posted by Jonathan at March 31, 2006 05:16 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

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