Image of a bleached coral from the Florida Keys in January 2010.
Warmer water temperatures can result in coral bleaching. When water is too warm, corals will expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues causing the coral to turn completely white. This is called coral bleaching. When a coral bleaches, it is not dead. Corals can survive a bleaching event, but they are under more stress and are subject to mortality.
In 2005, the U.S. lost half of its coral reefs in the Caribbean in one year due to a massive bleaching event. The warm waters centered around the northern Antilles near the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico expanded southward. Comparison of satellite data from the previous 20 years confirmed that thermal stress from the 2005 event was greater than the previous 20 years combined.
Not all bleaching events are due to warm water.
In January 2010, cold water temperatures in the Florida Keys caused a coral bleaching event that resulted in some coral death. Water temperatures dropped -6.7 degrees Celsius (12.06 degrees Fahrenheit) lower than the typical temperatures observed at this time of year. Researchers will evaluate if this cold-stress event will make corals more susceptible to disease in the same way that warmer waters impact corals.
For more information:
NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program
U.S. Coral Reef Task Force
NOAA Coral Reef Information System
Coral Health and Monitoring Program
Five Things You Should Know About Coral Reefs
Value of Coral Reefs (audio podcast)
Coral Reef Ecosystems (NOAA State of the Coast)