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Record-high water temps off Florida coast raise concern about coral reefs


By Marquise Meda

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    FLORIDA (WESH) — We’ve been hearing all about the record-breaking water temperatures off the South Florida coast.

The coral reefs, tourism, and way of life are being impacted by this extreme weather.

“Unprecedented” is the sentiment we heard on our trip down to the Keys.

So, should Central Florida be concerned? The answer we heard is yes.

A South Florida sunrise was a mix of clouds and rain, a reprieve from 2023’s record heat.

According to government data, the waters in the Keys are averaging five degrees above normal.

On average, the waters down there stay in the low 90s.

But then July came and with it came a shock, a reading of 101 degrees in Manatee Bay.

“We got really, really hot in July,” Christopher Kelble said.

Kelble is a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist collecting data from inside the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratories in Miami.

The color-coded area maps he showed WESH 2 were easy to read with dark reds being hotter temps.

“But you can see how abnormally hot it is,” Kelble said.

It’s Kelble’s job to study the ecosystem in the Keys and document any changes for the government.

WESH 2 asked Kelble if Central Florida should be concerned.

“Yes, for a few reasons. What we are seeing right now in water temperatures for South Florida is alarming, and as you know, a lot of what happens in Central Florida is tied to South Florida,” Kelble said. “You go to restaurants there to enjoy seafood. It often comes from South Florida, the west coast of Florida not just from Central Florida, so it’s going to affect all of Florida.”

A video of the situation unfolding showed coral reefs losing color. It’s known as bleaching.

“Bleaching occurs when a coral host(s) a symbiotic algae in its tissue. That algae provides the coral with the vast majority of its food. During stressful environmental conditions, which we are seeing right now, these warm temperatures, that algae will leave the coral and the clear tissue is left behind,” said Katey Lesneski from the NOAA Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Lesneski and her team are part of the NOAA’s efforts to save the coral reefs.

Lesneski recorded a video just days ago documenting the changes.

“This is all dead tissue here,” Lesneski said.

She says the damage is “unimaginable.”

“The pictures and the videos themselves really do tell the story of what’s happening,” Lesneski said.

“I don’t want to be the ones known in history as the ones who let it go without a fight,” said Michael Goldberg, a shop owner.

Concern for the reefs is starting to surface across the Keys.

The Coral Restoration Foundation recently started moving some coral from the ocean to tanks with cooler water.

Goldberg owns Key Dives shop. For him, it’s simple, the divers come to experience an underwater paradise.

Goldberg is determined to not see it lost.

“Absolutely worth fighting for,” Goldberg said.

I.CARE is a conservation effort Goldberg co-founded.

He says reversing the effects fo the bleaching event won’t be easy.

“It’s a multi-generational job that is not going to be solved in a year, or two,” Goldberg said.

“So, if we lose reefs, we lose the habitat,” Lesneski said. “It is, very much, a huge part of everyone’s life here.”

A fragile part of our planet is now suffering from what the scientific community believes is an alarming trend fueled by climate change.

“The fact that we are seeing bleaching already in mid-July is very concerning because bleaching tends to be more of an August phenomenon,” Kelble said. “So, if we continue this heat wave and we are already seeing bleaching, we expect it to last longer than it usually does, which will make it more likely that the corals will be negatively impacted.”

“We are going to have some corals survive and those corals that survive are the ones that we are going to use to then help us rebuild our coral reefs,” Goldberg said.

NOAA tells WESH 2 we won’t fully understand the scope of the damage until late September.

That’s typically when the water temps start to dip and the corals that hold on during the warmest months of the year should make it.

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