Caribbean corals bleaching at unprecedented rate

This year’s notably warmer-than-usual Atlantic waters — fuel for 2005’s intense hurricane season — have been devastating some life below the waves as well. Water temperatures have remained elevated for about 15 weeks, causing coral reefs to bleach from the Florida Keys to Puerto Rico to Panama. The micro-algae that feed corals, and give them their bright colors, leave or are ejected when the water is too warm. Current stress levels are double what corals normally face, and may kill 80 to 90 percent of reef structures in some parts of the Caribbean. With about 80 percent of the Caribbean’s reefs already lost to development, pollution, and other factors, researchers seem to be — not to put too fine a point on it — freaking out. “These levels are like nothing we’ve ever seen” in 20 years of monitoring, says NOAA Coral Reef Watch coordinator Al Strong. “We are talking extremely high percentage of bleaching and what seems to be extreme mortality.”