(CNN) — An emergency rescue operation is underway to save Florida’s coral species from extinction as mass bleaching and extinction due to unprecedented water temperatures spread across the Florida Keys.
Coral experts have told CNN that several reefs around the Florida Keys are now completely bleached or dead in a grim escalation that has taken place in just two weeks.
Experts now say they expect the bleached reefs to die “total death” in just a week, and fear that reefs at greater depths could face the same fate if unprecedented ocean heat continues to rise.
Extreme heat and lack of rain and wind have raised the water temperature around Florida to one of the highest levels ever seen anywhere. A buoy in the Florida Bay reached a temperature of 101.1 degrees Fahrenheit at a depth of 5 feet on Monday. in an area where corals are scarce. Many other stations in the area exceeded 96 degrees, including one that hit 99 degrees, according to the National Data Buoy Center.
The most significant coral concentration is not in the shallower Florida Bay where the readings were taken, but that doesn’t matter much for the corals around the Florida Keys that bake in water temperatures in excess of 90 degrees.
Coral is extremely sensitive to temperature changes. Too high temperatures for too long cause corals to bleach and turn white as they displace their food source from the algae and slowly starve to death. According to experts, the water in the region is usually found in the mid-80s.
On July 6, the temperature at the reef operated by the Florida Aquarium was 91 degrees. At the time, the corals were completely healthy, but when the aquarium teams returned on July 19, all the corals were bleached and an estimated 80% of them were dead. Another report from the Coral Restoration Foundation found “100% coral loss” at Sombrero Reef off the coast of Marathon in the Florida Keys.
“It’s like the extinction of all the trees in the rainforest,” Keri O’Neill, director and senior scientist at the Florida Aquarium, told CNN. “Where do all the other animals that live in the rainforest live? This is an underwater version of the disappearance of trees in the rainforest. Corals fulfill the same fundamental role.”
Andrew Ybarra was worried about his “favorite reef” Cheeca Rocks. he told CNN. So he took his snorkeling gear and camera, jumped into a kayak, and paddled a short mile and a half from Islamorada to the site.
“I found the entire reef whitewashed,” said Ybarra, a NOAA monitoring specialist at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. “Each coral colony has shown some form of bleaching, partial or complete bleaching. Including the recent death of some corals that have already died.”
Photographs and videos of Ibarra show a terrible graveyard of corals devoid of color and life.
“The photos are frankly horrific,” Cathy Lesnesky, mission monitoring coordinator for NOAA: Iconic Reefs, told CNN. “It’s hard for me to put into words what I’m feeling right now.”
Lesnesky said she found two other reefs with “very, very high mortality” but also found a “point of hope” while diving in a deeper reef on Monday, where only 5% of the corals have begun to bleach because water temperatures are slightly cooler in the so-called “deep shelters.”
But even these corals can bleach and die if there is no respite from high water temperatures. Previous mass bleaching events in Florida have occurred several weeks later than this event, when ocean temperatures typically peak.
Reef restoration experts are now harvesting genetically important species from their nurseries, where they plant and grow corals bred for greater resilience and take them to dry land to wait out the extreme heat.
“Scientists are just struggling to preserve what we have. It’s pretty crazy that at the moment the best solution we have is to take as many corals out of the ocean as possible,” O’Neill told CNN. “It’s shocking when you think about it.”
It includes corals such as Staghorn and Elkhorn, which are “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act because there are only a few hundred genetically unique individuals left, O’Neill said. Florida has lost 90% of its Elkhorn, which is powerful and growing to the surface and therefore vital to reducing the destructive waves from hurricanes.
Thousands of salvaged pieces of coral end up in rows of climate-controlled water-filled tables at places like the Florida Institute of Oceanography’s Keyes Marine Laboratory. KML has already taken at least 1,500 corals and expects the number to rise to 5,000 or more as the big rescue operation ends.
“We’re in emergency triage mode at the moment,” Cynthia Lewis, biologist and director of KML, told CNN. “Some of these corals that came out last week looked really bad and we could lose them.”
Lewis said that while most of the corals are in good condition, up to 10% die in the lab.
But experts say each piece rescued will help them learn which corals can survive in warmer oceans, as well as lay the groundwork for Florida’s reefs to recover from this year’s bleaching.
“If anything, our work is more important than ever because we really depend on aquariums to keep these species from going extinct in Florida,” O’Neill told CNN.
The-CNN-Wire and © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc. a Time Warner company. All rights reserved.