1. Business

As planet heats up, scientists race to save reefs

This coral colony is made up of mounding species that help build tropical reefs. It was taken from an area of the Marquesas where corals have not yet been infected by a new disease infecting Florida’s reef tract. [Jenny Staletovich | WLRN]
This coral colony is made up of mounding species that help build tropical reefs. It was taken from an area of the Marquesas where corals have not yet been infected by a new disease infecting Florida’s reef tract. [Jenny Staletovich | WLRN]
Published Jul. 23, 2019

In a gravel parking lot on Virginia Key crowded with shade tanks used for raising fish, coral researchers have a new project underway: a Noah's Ark for disappearing coral.

The project is part of an aggressive new push by researchers from Australia to the Keys to find ways to protect reefs on a planet where warming oceans, increased coastal development and over-fishing are increasingly putting corals in peril. Over the last year, the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering put together a team to assess emerging solutions — some so novel they've emerged in recent months.

Much of what they're doing is uncharted territory, from gene editing to manipulating clouds.

"It's crucial coral systems survive," Stanford University marine biologist Steve Palumbi said last month when the team released the report at a Washington, D.C. briefing. Reefs, in particular, he said are "not just highly, highly productive and diverse, but they're really basic to the way humans use natural ecosystem services."

READ MORE: Florida newsrooms band together to cover the effects of climate change

University of Miami coral biologist Andrew Baker is caring for hundreds of corals that will be used to preserve the genetic diversity of Florida coral reefs now infected with a new disease.

In South Florida, the research comes at a critical time: the corals being tended at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Research on Virginia Key are part of a rescue plan for a disease outbreak that erupted five years ago off Virginia Key. The disease has spread north and south along 400 miles of coast, from the Keys to Martin County. Unlike other diseases, it's spread among different species of corals, hitting the mounding reef-builders the hardest. Five rare protected species have also been sickened.

Most coral diseases flourish in warmer months and tend to die out in winter. Not this one.

"It's the most devastating episode of a coral disease on record anywhere in the world," said UM coral biologist Andrew Baker, whose lab is caring for the corals. "It's lasted coming up for five years now and it's devastated, by some estimates, tens or perhaps even hundreds of millions of corals in the Florida reef tract."

READ MORE: New study predicts higher high temperatures for Florida thanks to climate change

Researchers have used anti-biotic paste to treat sick coral, but so far have not found a way to stop it.

The new disease emerged in the midst of a worldwide bleaching event that hit 75 percent of the ocean's reefs and lasted three years until 2017. The duration and breadth is unprecedented, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported.

Scientists fear bleaching events — when warmer water prompts coral to spit out the algae they need to survive — will increase as climate change drives up ocean temperatures. They also worry about increasing acidification, which occurs when oceans absorb more carbon. By 2004, the amount of carbon being absorbed by oceans had quadrupled over levels predating the Industrial Revolution, NOAA reported in March. More acid in the water makes it harder for corals, and some shellfish, to build their skeletons.

The spread of disease and damage to reefs has prompted researchers around the planet to explore new and innovative ways to try to save them, Palumbi said. The Academies' evaluation found 23 potential fixes, but only seven have been field tested.

READ MORE: Florida could face $76 billion in climate change costs by 2040, report says

Among some of the most promising are heat-stressing lab bred coral to make them better prepared for warmer reefs and finding more heat-resilient algae and getting corals to accept them.

But there are also fixes that push the boundaries of what scientists can do. Artificially changing overheating waters could help. Cooler water could be dumped on some reefs, but only in small areas, Palumbi said. Scientists are also looking at cloud manipulation to shade reefs.

Artificial reproduction also holds promise. As corals die off on some reefs, scientists worry too few will be left to seed the reef. Freezing sperm and using it to fertilize eggs could be one method to boost spawning, Palumbi said.

"When the committee started this report, that wasn't possible to do, so we see there'a a whole category of interventions that are in the process of being researched," he said during the Washington presentation.

The overall goal is to come up with enough fixes to keep reefs around long enough to solve the more complex problems causing climate change. Scientists aren't waiting to get to work, but Palumbi said they need help figuring out how to apply the fixes in the most strategic manner.

"We come back to the same set of three strong needs," Palumbi said. That means protecting reefs from local threats like overfishing and pollution, taking steps to slow climate change and helping reefs deal with impacts from climate change now. Otherwise, fixes working now won't work in a century.

This, he said, "allows us to use this time to make reefs resilient enough to bridge from now to when the climate starts getting better."

This story was produced by the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative that includes the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.


  1. LaKendria Robinson is the Tampa Bay Super Bowl LV Host Committee's director for community outreach and the Business Connect program. [Courtesy of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl LV Host Committee] [Tampa Bay Super Bowl LV Host Committee]
    The NFL’s Business Connect seeks to put local businesses owned by women, minorities, veterans and LGBTQ entrepreneurs in a position to compete for Super Bowl contracts.
  2. Muhammad Abdur-Rahim points out the location of what he believed to be a former African American cemetery next to the parking lot of FrankCrum Staffing, 100 S Missouri Ave. in Clearwater. Now, it appears the cemetery may have been on an adjacent lot where the building stands. [JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times]
    Archaeologists were scanning a vacant lot for bodies until an old city record pointed them to an adjacent property.
  3. Construction continues on the new Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County located in Wesley Chapel. The center will feature a 98,000 square foot sports center with eight bio-cushioned hardwood courts that can be utilized for basketball, volleyball, mixed martial arts, gymnastics, wrestling, soccer, futsal, cheerleading and dance. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
    The $44 million facility is expected to hold its first tournament in September
  4.  [Getty Images]
    While credit scores will fall for millions, millions more will see their scores rise.
  5. Lucky's Market ahead of its St. Petersburg grand opening just two years ago. [Times (2018)]
    Only one Florida Lucky’s Market will remain a Lucky’s. The future of the Tampa Bay locations is still unclear.
  6. Internet crimes are on the rise in Florida. [AP Photo]
    Also: Why were the SunTrust Financial Centre lights purple? And the cost of owning an electric car.
  7. AdventHealth's central Pasco emergency room at t 16625 State Road 54 is shown here. The hospital chain recently purchased 18 acres on State Road 52 at the northern entrance of the Mirada development west of Dade City. [MICHELE MILLER  |  Times]
    The hospital chain pays $4.5 million to buy 18 acres from a Metro Development Group affiliate.
  8. [Getty Images] [Getty Images]
    It would probably be good to ask his thoughts, the advice columnist writes.
  9. Renderings by Arquitectonica of the proposed Red Apple Group condo project in St. Petersburg. Courtesy of Arquitectonica [Courtesy of Arquitectonica]
    $300 million. 45 stories. A little closer to existence.
  10. A group of East Lake residents has erected signs protesting a 44-home development proposed by Tarpon Springs developer Pioneer Homes. Tarpon Springs commissioners recently voted to annex the site into the city. [Courtesy of Marc Washburn]
    The action targets a plan to build 44 homes on land between Keystone Road and Highland Avenue, double what was allowed in the East Lake District.