Ken Nedimyer, a renowned expert in coral reef restoration, is embarking on a critical mission to rescue corals in a state of alarming danger. Located just off the coast of Key Largo, Florida, a fleet of boats assembles for an unprecedented endeavor. The cause of concern lies beneath the ocean’s surface, where widespread patches of bleached coral, characterized by bone-white coloration, have sent shockwaves through the coral expert community. Scientists attribute these bleaching events to abnormally warm ocean water, placing significant stress on these fragile organisms.
Katey Lesneski, a coral scientist affiliated with the Mission Iconic Reefs program at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, emphasizes the unprecedented nature of these extreme temperatures. “We’ve witnessed temperatures reaching an unheard of 93 to 94 degrees Fahrenheit on the ocean floor, based on historical data,” she states. While coral bleaching doesn’t necessarily equate to imminent death, prolonged exposure to adverse conditions, without improvement, can lead to their demise within a matter of weeks to a month.
Climate scientists posit that human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, are the primary drivers behind the escalation of ocean temperature. With roughly 90% of the excess heat being absorbed by the oceans, the consequences for delicate ecosystems like coral reefs are dire. Ken Nedimyer, often referred to as the godfather of coral reef restoration, has been diving the Florida Keys since 1969. He vividly recollects the “magical paradise” he first encountered but laments the steady deterioration of coral reef health since then. According to Nedimyer, the ongoing year, 2023, marks the most distressing condition he has ever witnessed.
Nevertheless, a coalition comprising the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, conservation groups, government agencies, and volunteers is pursuing an audacious solution that was once deemed inconceivable. Nedimyer proposes a unique strategy: transferring corals from shallow waters to deeper, cooler depths, offering them a refuge from the sweltering temperatures. Teams of divers are swiftly mobilizing to gather the corals and transport them to their new abode, with a strict time limit of one hour.
While the temperature difference in the deeper waters is marginal, Nedimyer firmly believes it provides the corals with a fighting chance. “Given the stakes involved, we’re implementing various strategies,” he asserts apprehensively. “Every passing day only intensifies my concerns about leaving anything behind, as alternative options are scarce,” he adds. Coral reefs serve as a vital ecosystem, commonly known as the rainforests of the sea, supporting a quarter of all sea creatures, acting as protective barriers against storm surges, and making a substantial contribution of nearly $10 trillion annually to the global economy.
NOAA reports that in the Florida Keys alone, renowned for its vibrant diving and fishing opportunities, the reefs are worth a staggering $8.5 billion annually and sustain approximately 70,400 jobs. However, climate scientists caution that if global air temperatures increase by a mere 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit, almost all corals (99%) would face extinction. Such a catastrophic event could occur as early as 2050, as highlighted in a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018.
Despite the looming challenges, Nedimyer maintains an optimistic outlook. He remains hopeful, asserting that “there are still pockets where it’s beautiful and fantastic.” Recognizing the urgency of the situation, he emphasizes the importance of identifying and cultivating more heat-resilient coral species, as they may hold the key to survival in a rapidly warming world. The ultimate objective is to return the transplanted corals to their original locations. However, scientists caution that this might not be feasible until September when the water cools down sufficiently. The future of corals, particularly in the face of climate change, still remains uncertain, leaving Nedimyer filled with apprehension about the world he will leave for his grandchildren. He passionately declares, “I hope my grandkids can see it. I want them to experience it. And the thought of my generation having jeopardized it for future generations fills me with remorse.”