Over the past several decades coral reef populations have depleted by half, possibly more.
According to the University of North Florida's Biology Department Chair and professor Cliff Ross, 50 percent is a conservative estimate.
“I’d like to say everything will be ok, but it’s not,” Ross said.
It’s an awakening statement from someone who would want more than everything to be ok.
“Corals are very important,” said Ross. “I mean, it’s a good source of tourism in Florida, a lot of creatures thousands upon thousands live in coral reefs just like a condominium system, so we really have to have them.”
Unless you’re a scuba diver, you may have never experienced coral. It’s colorful, intricate and vital to our underwater ecosystem. It looks inanimate, but it’s very much alive.
It’s very much under attack.
“There are two main factors that are impacting the corals in a negative way,” Ross added.
Climate change, warmer waters, and elevated levels of carbon dioxide are essentially suffocating these creatures. They just can’t survive.
“If you expose them to warm water, they can take it for a few weeks and they’ll likely recover,” Ross said. “They’re rather resilient, but in the past few years we’ve had some serious hot weather.”
Additionally, excess carbon dioxide causes the pH balance of the water to slide out of balance.
"We have an issue called ocean acidification," said Ross. "What's happening is, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is diffusing into the ocean causing the ocean to become more acidic."
The acidic water causes the corals to "stress" and even die.
"Just like our blood, we have a certain pH in our blood, and if our blood gets too acidic, a condition called acidosis, you can die. Well organisms are living in the ocean and if it's getting too acidic they're going to stress and it's getting warmer, so they're really going to stress."
Ross and his UNF students collect corals during the new moon in May when they’re about to have their babies. The babies eventually attach to small ceramic tiles and the researchers can then expose the groups of corals to different elements. After that, it’s essentially a game of survival of the fittest.
“There really are significant effects, I mean if you expose them to warm water and put them next to algae not only will they not settle but a good proportion will die,” added Ross.
If new generations of coral can’t survive, that leads to a decline in thriving reefs. Ross is one of the few who study the coral babies.
“Right now, we’re at the point where it’s pretty much too late as far as environmental stress,” Ross commented.
“It’s getting warm out due to climate change. The ocean is acidifying and even if we stopped carbon dioxide emissions today. If it was like a faucet and we shut it off, it’s too late.”
That’s why Ross hopes to see which coral species can do the best with their current, or even worsening, conditions. This way, researchers can help the healthier corals propagate to increase their population.
These scientists hope they’re research leads to an eternal generation of corals, for an everlasting generation of scuba divers to appreciate.