Jeff Berardelli is a climate specialist and the Chief Meteorologist at News Channel 8.

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — In the Florida Keys, this is the face of climate change.

Once colorful coral cities overflowing with marine life, transforming into ghost towns, or better stated, “Ghost reefs” seemingly overnight.

Severe Bleaching and mortality on Cheeca Rocks, Middle FL Keys, July 24th. CREDIT: Coral Restoration Foundation™

“We are surprised by the pace. It is unprecedented what we have seen,” said Scott Atwell the communications and outreach manager for The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Atwell told WFLA Chief Meteorologist and Climate Specialist Tuesday: “We’ve never seen anything like this. Some are not even bleaching, they are going straight to dead.”

“Straight to dead” illustrates just how extreme the marine heatwave is and how quickly it’s evolving. When under stress, typically coral bleach first, expelling their symbiotic algae partners which give them their vibrant hues, and turn white. Then sometime later, if the heat persists, the coral can succumb and die.

But right now in the Florida Keys, there are reports of rapid mortality. Coral is dropping like dominoes across much of the reef tract from Key Largo to Key West – the third largest tract in the world and the only shallow water reef system in the U.S. mainland.

Turtle Rocks Reef, off Key Largo. Credit: Dana Williams NOAA

About 25% of marine life depends on Coral Reefs during some stage of their life. If coral reefs vanish it will have cascading consequences across ocean ecosystems and the life that it supports. 

Although the bleaching and mortality seem to be happening fast, getting to this point has taken about two months. For the past 10-plus weeks, coral has had to endure unusual heat stress. Water temperatures are at record levels in the low 90s along the reef tract, which is several degrees above the normal temperatures in the mid-80s.

Mission: Iconic Reefs, a large-scale NOAA-led coral restoration initiative reports that the most recent seafloor temperature at Sombrero Key (off Marathon) is 93.4F and at Looe Key (off Big Pine Key) is 89.6F. According to Mission: Iconic Reefs the ‘optimal’ temperature for reef-building corals maxes out at 84 degrees.

Degree Heating Weeks is the number of weeks that coral has been under heat stress. In parts of the Keys reef tract that is 11 weeks. Credit: NOAA Coral Reef Watch

Although tropical corals live in warm water, they are very sensitive to just a couple of degrees Fahrenheit spike in sea surface temperatures, especially if it lasts for too long. NOAA Coral Reef Watch says at four weeks, coral can begin to show signs of stress. If the heat last eight weeks, a bleaching event becomes likely. We are now past the eight-week mark.

Unfortunately, ocean temperatures in the Keys usually peak in late August and early September, so unless there is a major weather pattern shift, this heat stress will likely continue for several more weeks. NOAA Coral Reef Watch has the area under Alert Level 2, the highest alert for bleaching.

Bill Precht is a coral reef scientist in South Florida. In his 45 years studying coral, he’s never been so concerned about the Keys’ iconic reefs, ” If things progress as they have started – record high temps for a record long period – then we are likely seeing a coral bleaching event unlike any other previously observed in Florida. The likelihood of catastrophic levels of mortality are high.”

As a result of this unprecedented event, NOAA Mission: Iconic Reefs and their partner organizations are racing against the clock to rescue coral from the reefs and bring specimens into the lab where they can buy some time until the ocean cools back down.

So the natural question is, when the coral die, can they recover? Dr. Katey Lesneski, the Coordinator of NOAA Mission: Iconic Reefs was asked that question by PBS News Hour and here’s what she said, “Once they die there are other reef organisms that will settle on that skeleton, take up space, and the coral tissue can not grow back, unfortunately.”

So the teams are taking drastic measures to gene bank two fragments from each unique genetic individual of staghorn and elkhorn corals, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In other words, they are preserving the genetic material so that if much of the coral is lost, there is a way to restore it.

So what are the causes of this prolonged marine heatwave?

Human-caused climate change is one factor. That has elevated the base temperature of the Florida Keys by 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 50 years, as evidenced by the NOAA visual below. Since corals are very sensitive to a couple of degrees of fluctuation, that is very significant.

Middle of graph: Sea surface temperatures just south of Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys since 1985. The black line is 2023 which is 1 degree C (1.8 degrees F) above record levels). Since the 1980s water temperatures in July have increased from 29C to 31C, an increase of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Raising the baseline temperature makes it that much easier for weather patterns to force water temperatures above the thresholds for intense marine heatwaves. Credit: NOAA

A study published last year shows that marine heatwaves are increasing in South Florida. In 1980, the area averaged around one marine heatwave per year. The linear trend through 2021 shows an increase to five per year, but in the last several years there’s been an acceleration, now up to eight marine heatwaves per year.

Marine Heatwaves in South Florida are increasing Credit: Androulidakis Et al. 2022

And it’s not just the Florida Keys experiencing unusual ocean heat right now. At the present moment, an astonishing 45% of Earth is covered in marine heatwaves, normally it would be 10% or less.

Global Ocean Departure from Normal Temperatures. Red is warmer than normal. Blue is cooler than normal. Credit: WFLA

While human-forced heating is responsible for some of this heat, the rest can be blamed on the weather. Most marine heatwaves come and go based on weather patterns and wind, or lack thereof. So it’s easy to see how elevated ocean temperatures due to climate change allow stagnant weather patterns to push water temperatures over critical marine heatwave thresholds.

Since the end of spring, the weather pattern in South Florida has played an integral role in its marine heatwave. This summer Florida has experienced a very odd weather pattern, where the typical Atlantic high pressure did not nose its way into Florida and the easterly winds did not materialize (until now). The result has been a stagnant weather pattern for weeks with light winds. That has spiked ocean temperatures and not allowed for cooling breaks.

The weather pattern this summer has featured a very stagnant weather pattern across South Florida with light winds and rising sea surface temperatures. Credit: WFLA

When you combine a favorable weather pattern for ocean warming, on top of the long-term trend of rising ocean temperatures, the result is more frequent and intense heatwaves and growing coral mortality.

Now there is some good news. The season’s first tropical wave is moving in. With it comes rain and breeze too. On Wednesday, sea surface temperatures in Florida Bay were 10 degrees lower than Tuesday due to clouds, rain and wind. Shallow water temps can change fast.

Within 1-2 days, water temperatures in shallow Florida Bay dropped ~10 degrees Fahrenheit due to rain and wind as a tropical wave moved in.

It should be noted the bay is not where the coral reefs are. The 101 temperature reading on Monday was not on the reef tract and has no impact on the coral.

The reef exists on the south side of the Florida Keys adjacent to deeper water and stronger ocean currents. Therefore the temperatures there are not as hot, but will drop less and take longer to do so. Still, this change in weather pattern is promising, especially if it can continue for a couple of weeks.

But even before this latest bleaching episode, only 3% of coral cover is left in the Florida Keys (down from 40% in the 1970s). That’s due to multiple stressors such as coral disease, nutrient pollution, and bleaching. As a result, science has been forced to turn to coral restoration to try to safeguard what’s left and restock the reefs.

For several years now, there have been multiple restoration efforts by the University of South Florida, the University of Miami, Mote Marine, NOAA and many more including Coral Restoration™ Foundation in Tavernier.

In an email to WFLA’s Jeff Berardelli, CEO Dr. R. Scott Winters said he and his team led a mission to Sombrero Reef last week to collect and safeguard tissue samples from three founder colonies of elkhorn. “Unfortunately, it was too late,” Winters said, “Out planted colonies as well as wild colonies were affected by the high water temperatures.”

Dead coral at Sombrero Reef. White areas are bleached while orange patches are tissue slough, dead coral tissue, killed by the heat. Credit Coral Restoration Foundation™

Berardelli asked Winters if coral restoration efforts can outpace climate warming.

“We are optimistic, despite bleaching events such as we’re currently seeing. We know that lots of things can influence a coral’s survival under such stressful events; things like its genetics, environmental conditions, the local environment where it lives, and the reef community it is part of,” explained Winters, “What is clear is that we have to increase the speed and scale of our work so that we can test many different combinations of these factors and see what works in different scenarios.”

Credit Coral Restoration Foundation™

“There is no magic bullet, or super-coral if you will, just hard, repetitive work to figure out the combination of pieces that might help coral survive under changing conditions, regardless of what those conditions may be.”

But Winters admits that as the climate continues to warm, coral faces an uphill battle to survive, “As long-term water temperatures increase in certain areas, no coral may survive.”

“The best we can do – and what we’re working diligently towards – is ensuring that corals will be around tomorrow with the greatest potential for resiliency to adapt to changing conditions, whatever they may be. Coral restoration alone is insufficient to ensure coral reefs exist in the future, but is a necessary component of the plan, as is addressing climate change.”

Looe Key Coral Tree Nursery Bleaching on July 21. CREDIT: Coral Restoration Foundation™

Climate scientists project that global heating will likely kill 99% of tropical corals around the planet by mid-century. If so, coral reefs will be the first global ecosystem to succumb to climate change.

The only thing standing in the way of Earth’s remaining coral reefs transitioning to “Ghost Reefs” is humanity’s desire, or lack thereof, to stop the self-inflicted warming.