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Making Waves: Episode 47 (March 17, 2010)

…Take an interactive journey to learn about the State of our Coasts
… Cold weather hits corals in Florida
… And an annual whale count is wrapping up in Hawaii

We've got three stories for you today, Wednesday, March 17 th, and you're listening to Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.

(State of the Coast)

Check this out. From 1970 to the present year, the number of people living in U.S. coastal counties rose 46 percent. Today, about 52 percent -- more than half of the nation's total population -- lives in just 673 coastal counties. By mid-century, this coastal population is expected to increase by another 7.1 million people.

Fifty-seven percent of our nation's gross domestic product is generated just within these coastal counties along our oceans and Great Lakes. Our nation's ports that drive our economy are in these areas. Our fisheries and most popular tourist destinations are here.

So how are our coasts holding up under this unprecedented human pressure? How do increasing populations and heavy economic use along our coasts relate to water quality, pollution, invasive species, and coral reef health? What effects might climate change pose to these vulnerable areas?

Last week, the ocean serviced launched a new Web site called State of the Coast to explore these questions, and you've really got to check it out. It's at

The site focuses around four themes that tell the story of how much we rely on and get out of our coasts, and how this heavy human usage is degrading these fragile areas and threatening their health.

In the Communities theme, you can check out changes in U.S. coastal population, the importance of clean beaches, and the extent of U.S. marine protected areas. In the Economy theme, explore the impact that coastal areas have on the U.S. economy, the value of a sustainable fishing industry, and the economic significance of our nation's ports. The Ecology theme provides you with a chance to learn about the overall health of the coast, as well as the health of specific, critical resources like reefs, and the impacts of pollution and invasive species on coastal ecosystems. Under the Climate theme, you can explore the vulnerability of our coasts to long-term sea level rise and learn about the infrastructure and populations in our flood-prone coastal areas.

Now I want to stress that this is more than just a bunch of pages with text and pictures. It's full of interactive maps that let you drill down and take a really detailed look at data compiled by NOAA, EPA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and other agencies and institutions. There is a ton of information to explore here, and the interactivity makes it a lot of fun. You can find your county on a map of the U.S. and see how population has changed over time, and how it's projected to change in the future. You can see how the region you live in fares in terms of water quality, fish tissue contaminants, or sediment quality. You can check to see where the most vulnerable areas are in the nation in terms of predicted sea level rise due to climate change. You can see how zebra mussels - an invasive species - has spread around the nation since it was first recorded in 1988. This is just a small -- a really small -- taste of what you'll find at state of the coast.

We hope you give it a look and let us know what you think. And we hope you come away with a deeper appreciation of the need to better understand, manage, and protect our nation's coastal resources. You'll find the site at

(Coral Bleaching in Florida)

If you live on the East Coast of the U.S., I'm sure you remember the cold spell we had back in January. During that period, unusually cold temperatures stretched all the way down to the tip of Florida. This cold had a particularly chilling effect on ocean temperatures down around the Florida Keys.

During the first two weeks of January, water temperatures in some parts of the Florida Keys dropped into the upper 40s and lower 50s. That's about 20 degrees Fahrenheit lower than normal. This was bad news for coral reefs. The lethal lower limit for corals is 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Because of these record low-water temperatures, NOAA and partners from 12 different organizations recently finished surveying in the Florida Keys to get a handle on the extent of coral bleaching and death in the area.

What they found is that the influx of cold water from Florida and Biscayne bays appears to be responsible for coral deaths in nearshore waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The hardest hit areas were the inshore and mid-channel reefs from Biscayne Bay in southeast Florida to Summerland Key, an island in the Florida Keys. The good news is thate offshore reefs most frequented by divers and sportfishers were buffered by warmer waters of the Florida Current and were spared severe impact by the cold.

This was a pretty rare event. A widespread cold-water coral die-off has not occurred in Florida since the late 1970s.

The data collected during this survey will help give researchers a greater understanding about coral reefs and guide efforts to protect these critical habitats. Scientists are still exploring whether this cold-stress event will make corals more susceptible to disease. Following warm-water stress events, the bacterial makeup of corals changes, and that increases the prevalence of coral disease. This winter's event allows scientists to collect data to compare and contrast coral health following both cold- and warm-water events.

You may be wondering what the difference is between coral bleaching and death. When water is too warm or too cold, corals will expel the algae living in their tissues, and this causes the coral to turn completely white. This is what is called coral bleaching. When a coral bleaches, it is not dead. Corals can survive a bleaching event, but they are under a lot of stress in this state and are at greater risk of dying.

NOAA's Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary serves as manager of most of Florida Keys coral reef resources. Staff from the sanctuary are working with the science community and limiting certain human activities in the hardest hit areas until stressful conditions subside. The Sanctuary is also asking SCUBA divers to avoid the reefs affected by January's cold weather.

(Hawaii Whale Count)

And finally today, we just thought we'd let you know what's going on in Hawaii. Each winter, from around December to May, a bunch of endangered North Pacific humpback whales migrate from their feeding grounds in Alaska all the way to the warm waters of Hawai'i to breed. The pristine waters around the remote island chain is considered to be one of the most important breeding, calving, and nursing grounds for humpback whales in the entire North Pacific.

Each year, NOAA's Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary hosts an event called the Sanctuary Ocean Count to learn more about these whale populations.

The Sanctuary Ocean Count began as a way to provide Hawai'i residents and visitors to the islands with the chance to observe humpback whales in their breeding grounds by conducting a yearly shore-based census during the peak breeding season.

Although the census does not claim to provide scientifically accurate results, it serves as a tool to supplement scientific information gathered from other research activities. The count also provides some information on how whales use in-shore waters on an average peak season day. And it's a lot of fun. By assisting in the count, volunteers can help to monitor the number of humpback whales and other marine mammals around the islands -- and that helps ensure their health and safety for generations to come.

To date, the Sanctuary Ocean Count covers 60 sites on four islands, with over 2000 volunteers. In the future, the Sanctuary hopes to expand this project to other islands.

If you live in Hawaii, if you're visiting, or if you're planning a trip in the coming weeks, there's still time to join the last count on March 27th. And if you miss this years count, maybe you can join in next year when the whales return again to breed. You can find out more about the program and about the sanctuary at


And that's all for this week.

If you have any questions about this week's podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean -- or if you have an ocean fact you'd like answered -- send us a note at

Now let's go out with some whale sounds...

This is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.