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Friday, March 31, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bleaching, disease killing coral

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A one-two punch of bleaching from record hot water followed by disease has killed ancient and delicate coral in the biggest loss of reefs scientists have seen in Caribbean waters.

Researchers from around the globe are scrambling to figure out the extent of the loss. Early conservative estimates from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands find about one-third of the coral in official monitoring sites has recently died.

"It's an unprecedented die-off," said National Park Service fisheries biologist Jeff Miller, who last week checked 40 stations in the Virgin Islands. "The mortality that we're seeing now is of the extremely slow-growing reef-building corals. These are corals that are the foundation of the reef. ... We're talking colonies that were here when [Christopher] Columbus came by have died in the past three to four months."

Some of the devastated coral can never be replaced, Miller said.

Coral reefs are the basis for a multibillion-dollar tourism and commercial-fishing economy in the Caribbean. Key fish species use coral as habitat and feeding grounds. Reefs limit the damage from hurricanes and tsunamis. More recently, they are being touted as possible sources for new medicines.

If coral reefs die "you lose the goose with golden eggs" that are key parts of small-island economies, said Edwin Hernandez-Delgado, a University of Puerto Rico biology researcher.

On Sunday, Hernandez-Delgado found a colony of 800-year-old star coral that had just died off Puerto Rico.

On Wednesday, Tyler Smith, coordinator of the U.S. Virgin Islands Coral Reef Monitoring program, dived at a popular spot for tourists in St. Thomas and saw an old chunk of brain coral, about 3 feet in diameter, that was at least 90 percent dead from the disease called "white plague."

"We haven't seen an event of this magnitude in the Caribbean before," said Mark Eakin, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Coral Reef Watch.

For the Caribbean, it started with high sea temperatures.

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New NOAA sea-surface temperature figures show the sustained heating in the Caribbean last summer and fall was by far the worst in 21 years of satellite monitoring, Eakin said.

The heat causes the symbiotic algae that provide food for the coral to die and turn white. That puts the coral in critical condition.

In the past, only some coral species would bleach and the problem would occur only at certain depths. But in 2005, bleaching struck far more of the region at all depths and in most species.

A February NOAA report calculates 96 percent of lettuce coral, 93 percent of the star coral and nearly 61 percent of the iconic brain coral in St. Croix had bleached. Much of the coral had started to recover from the bleaching last fall, but the weakened colonies were struck by disease, finishing them off.

Eakin said it's hard to point to global warming for just one season's high temperatures, but other scientists are convinced.

"The coral bleaching is probably more a symptom of disease — the widespread global environmental degradation — that's going on," said John Rollino, the chief scientist for the Bahamian Reef Survey.

Also

Antarctic warming: An analysis of 30 years of weather-balloon data shows the air over Antarctica is warming even faster than in other parts of the world.

This is the first report of broad-scale climate change across the whole continent, the British Antarctic Survey says in today's issue of Science.

The weather-balloon data show a warming of 0.9 degree to 1.3 degree Fahrenheit a decade in the past 30 years. By contrast, the average worldwide temperature has risen 0.2 degree a decade in that time, according to the paper.

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