Warming waters destroying reefs at highest rate ever

People flock from all over the world to South Florida’s beautiful beaches, probably unaware of a vital and endangered resource lying beneath the water’s surface.

“The coral reefs are really an amazing and unique gem that we have right here off of our coast,” said Richard Kern, producer of the documentary “You, Me and The Sea.”

“All of us can hop in our cars and boats and in 30 minutes visit the most biodiverse ecosystem that we have.”

These reefs are as vulnerable as they are diverse, and scientists like Lisa Pitman agree that climate change is having a disastrous effect on their community. But many Floridians remain unaware of the danger the reefs face.

Climate change will “absolutely affect many things, including tourism,” said Pitman, who is a project director with the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami. “People come from all over to see our reefs.”

According to the engineering firm Hazen and Sawyer, coral reefs in the Florida Keys account for more than 70,000 jobs and $5.5 billion in sales.

“Coral reefs in South Florida provide both economic and aesthetic benefits to human society,” said Margaret Miller, an ecologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Covering less than a tenth of 1 percent of the Earth’s surface, the reefs are home to one in every four species of ocean creatures, NOAA reports.

Global warming results from excessive amounts of carbon dioxide released into the environment, causing temperatures around the globe to increase, killing swaths of reefs. Ocean acidification is another factor in reef decline, causing decay of reef formations.

“Ocean acidification is one of the effects of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because it changes the chemistry of the ocean,” Miller said.

Still another problem that occurs when ocean water is heated is known as coral bleaching.

“The most important effect of climate change on coral reefs here in South Florida especially up until now has been in the form of coral bleaching events,” Miller said. The algae critical to sustaining life for the corals are released during bleaching, revealing their skeleton as they turn completely white and begin to die.

“We use the phrase climate change to enclose a whole bunch of things that are going on,” Kern said. “Especially acidification and sea level rise.”

Flooding and high tides are a growing concern for homeowners and businesses in South Florida, but are an even bigger threat to reefs.

Even the smallest amount of sea level increase can push crucial sunlight rays away from reef swaths. Even without sea level rise, other problems lurk among the waters.

A 2013 project conducted by marinecultures.org shows that boat anchors are a primary threat to reefs, especially in areas such as South Florida.

“Boating regulations need to be followed,” Pitman said. “People do really terrible things while boating and diving, and I think people should just stay away from our reefs.”

Even without leaving their homes, many people could be adding to the problem unwittingly. Household items such as soaps containing micro-beads starve reef systems and the coexisting animals. Tiny microbeads floating around in the sea look just as enticing as their actual form of food, plankton.

The website takepart.com has reported that 92 percent of ocean animals have eaten some form of plastic waste. Another item that harms coral reefs is sunscreen. Miller said sunscreen chemicals brought into the ocean by humans build up on the reefs and cause them to decay. By using more recyclable materials to make products, the reefs’ digestive system, and oceans can be spared.

“There is always hope,” Pitman said. “Awareness of beauty is so important, but there is always something to be hopeful about.”