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Florida Reefs Experiencing Deep Freeze

February 16, 2010

Experts reported on Monday that a cold streak affecting most of the country is also being blamed for killing Florida’s coral reefs.

Sea temperatures off southern Florida have plummeted and are damaging the delicate coral structures that cannot survive in extended temperatures below 59 degrees Fahrenheit. The Lower Keys are feeling most of the impact where “temperatures have been lower,” and “there is higher mortality,” Diego Lirman, an expert on coral reefs at the University of Miami, told AFP.

Around Miami, where temperatures have dipped below 35 degrees regularly throughout most of January and February, are seeing the coldest temperatures since 1970.

The cold weather leads coral to “bleach,” in which it loses its pigmentation and eventually dies off. The loss of coral habitat has a devastating effect on the delicate eco-systems in the region. Lirman added that micro-algae living within the coral are forced to leave due to lack of a food source.

Large brain and star coral, which takes hundreds of years to grow into enormous, brilliant underwater colonies, are feeling the biggest impact from the cold. This has been the worst “cold-water bleaching event” since the 1977-78 winter season, when acres of staghorn coral died off, said Billy Causey, southeast regional director of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

Many tropical animal species of the region are also being affected by the unseasonable weather this year. Manatees have been seen huddling close together in waters near power plants, where water is slightly warmer. Iguanas are also becoming very lethargic and falling out of their natural tree habitats.

Iguanas need temperatures between 73 degrees and 95 degrees Fahrenheit to thrive in a positive manner. When temperatures drop below 60 degrees, they become lethargic, and when temperatures fall below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, they become totally immobile due to lack of blood flow. Unable to grasp on to the tree branches in the cold air, they fall out of the trees.

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