From: Mat Probasco, Associated Press
Published December 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Scientists Study Coral Reefs in Caribbean

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands — U.S. government scientists were taking aerial photos and conducting underwater surveys to study a coral disease threatening life in the Caribbean Sea, officials said Tuesday.


The researchers from NASA and NOAA -- the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration -- planned to document most of the coral bleaching in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, said Rafe Boulon, a spokesman for St. John National Park.


The study was "in response to one of the most devastating regional-scale coral bleaching events on record in the Caribbean," Liane Guild, a NASA scientist leading the study, said in her project proposal.


Coral color comes from algae that live on its surface. When coral is stressed -- such as during periods of increased sea surface temperatures -- it dispels the algae, thereby losing its color.


If coral bleaching occurs for more than a week, it can lead to coral death and the loss of reef habitats used by other marine life.


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NOAA's coral reef watch unit first reported coral bleaching occurring in late August in the Florida Keys. Recent data gathered by the University of Puerto Rico shows that up to 95 percent of coral colonies off the island have had some bleaching.


Worldwide, coral reefs cover about 110,000 square miles, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the world's oceans. But they support more than 1 million species of marine life.


"Coral reefs are considered 'canaries of the oceans,' acting as an early warning system for marine ecosystems," Guild said in a statement.


The bleaching process can begin when temperatures are as little as one or two degrees above 86F for an extended period of time.


Since March, the northeast Caribbean has had higher than normal sea surface temperatures. The trade winds, which usually help cool the sea, also were not as strong as they have been in the past.


The scientists examined coral reefs in Puerto Rico and St. Croix last week. They reviewed reefs in St. John on Monday and planned to finish their field work on Tuesday.


Source: Associated Press


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