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September 24, 2010

NOAA: Coral bleaching likely in Caribbean this year

The decline and loss of coral reefs has significant social, cultural, economic and ecological impacts
By Noaa

According to the NOAA Coral Reef Watch monitoring system coral bleaching is likely to occur in the Caribbean this year. With temperatures above-average all year, NOAA's models show a strong potential for bleaching in the southern and southeast Caribbean through October that could be as severe as in 2005 when nearly 90 percent of corals were bleached, and over 10 percent died throughout much of the Caribbean. Scientists are already reporting coral bleaching at several sites.

The NOAA Coral Reef Watch (CRW) satellite coral bleaching monitoring shows sea surface temperatures continue to remain above-average throughout the wider Caribbean region. Large areas of the southeastern Caribbean Sea are experiencing thermal stress capable of causing coral bleaching. The western Gulf of Mexico and the southern portion of the Bahamas have also experienced significant bleaching thermal stress. The CRW Coral Bleaching Thermal Stress Outlook indicates that the high stress should continue to develop in the southern and southeast Caribbean until mid-October. Prolonged coral bleaching of as little as a week can lead to coral death and the subsequent loss of coral reef habitats for a range of marine life.

"The early warning predictions of NOAA's CRW program are vital to assisting coral reef managers in making early preparations for coral bleaching events," says Billy Causey, southeast regional director for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. "While managers can't do anything immediately to prevent coral bleaching, these early warnings give them time to monitor and track the stressful event, thus learning more about both direct and secondary impacts of bleaching on coral reefs around the world."

The decline and loss of coral reefs has significant social, cultural, economic and ecological impacts on people and communities in the Caribbean, the United States, Australia, and throughout the world. As the "rainforests of the sea," coral reefs provide services estimated to be worth as much as $375 billion globally each year.
 
"High temperatures cause corals to force out the symbiotic algae that provide them with food. This makes the corals appear white or 'bleached' and can increase outbreaks of infectious disease," said Mark Eakin, Ph.D., coordinator of NOAA's Coral Reef Watch. "Temperatures are high in the Caribbean, and we expect this to continue. This season has the potential to be one of the worst bleaching seasons for some reefs."

Even though a variety of stresses - namely thermal stresses - continue to rise in the Caribbean basin, temperatures are expected to begin cooling in the Gulf of Mexico and Florida. In addition, recent hurricanes and tropical storms that passed near the U.S. Virgin Islands have cooled the waters there. NOAA researchers have shown that tropical weather systems can cool the high temperatures that cause bleaching, and NOAA forecasts that this Atlantic hurricane season will probably be more active than usual.

"A NOAA survey cruise just returned from the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary where we saw serious bleaching," said Emma Hickerson, sanctuary research coordinator for the site, which is located off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. "Several species were bleached and we are concerned we could lose much of the fire corals this year."

In 2005, the year of the worst bleaching on record in the Caribbean, no tropical storms passed close enough to cool the Virgin Islands. Consequently, 90 percent of the area corals being bleached and 60 percent died. Overall, the 2005 bleaching event was the result of the largest, most intense thermal stress recorded in the Caribbean during the 25-year NOAA satellite record.