Fate of Florida corals uncertain as water warms

Under the turquoise waters in Biscayne National Park, a story of promise or demise is brewing.

About a mile from the rusted steel slabs of the Mandalay — a shipwrecked Windjammer cruises sailboat parked on the ocean floor — Elkhorn corals have latched onto the reef and started to reproduce.

Once a prevalent reef builder in South Florida, the dulce de leche-colored Elkhorn corals were reduced to about 3 percent of their historic population in 2005 by tropical storms, disease, irresponsible boating practices and climate change. Now, Elkhorn are ``coming back like gang-busters,'' according to Richard Curry, chief scientist at Biscayne National Park.

But if weather forecasters are correct, this recovery may soon melt away under the summer heat, possibly in tragic proportions.

Like most shallow reef coral species, Elkhorn are susceptible to coral bleaching, a paling effect corals endure when under severe stress, usually but not exclusively as a result of increasing water temperatures.

This summer, water temperatures have been so warm that coral paling, the first step in the bleaching process, was found as north as Biscayne Bay in July, even before the usual August scorchers.

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