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Outside Cancún climate conference, Caribbean Sea testifies to global warming

2010 was one of the deadliest years on record for coral reefs. The Caribbean Sea just outside the Cancún climate conference offers evidence of global warming's negative effect.

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Coral covers less than 1 percent of the ocean floor but provides habitat and supports as much as 25 percent of all marine life. Coral reefs are home to more than 1 million aquatic species. And barrier reefs knock down waves before they reach shore, cutting down on the rate of coastal erosion, according to coral reef conservation groups.

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An oft-cited 1998 study, “Reefs at Risk,” found that the food, tourism revenue, coastal protection, and value of new medications provided by coral reefs is worth about $375 billion a year.

Described by some as the tropical rainforests of the sea and others as bustling little cities of marine life, today’s coral reefs are between 5,000 and 10,000 years old. But the past 30 years have been particularly difficult for them. One study suggests that some areas of the Caribbean lost 80 percent of live coral since 1977.

90-degree water

That’s why marine biologists are worried about another massive bleaching like that of 2005. Scientists had hoped that an active hurricane season would stir ocean waters, bringing up colder waters. Coral reefs grow best in temperatures between 70 and 85 degrees F., according to Coral Reef Alliance.

But the 19 named storms that barreled across the Atlantic Ocean, ending with Tropical Storm Tomas, did little to cool off waters. In some areas, water temperatures reached nearly 90 degrees F.

“Some areas of the Caribbean have been experiencing varying levels of bleaching and stress from this year’s unusually warm sea surface temperatures,” Mr. MacPherson says. “Winds have been relatively still throughout the eastern Caribbean and, as a result, little mixing of sea water has been occurring.”

From the coast of Panama to the eastern Caribbean, divers are finding white masses where once brilliantly colored seascapes stood.

'Extensive bleaching'

Off the coast of Tobago in the southern Caribbean, scientists from Coral Cay, a conservation group, reported bleaching accompanied by an unknown fungal disease covering sponges.

“It’s pretty snowy down there,” says Marie Smedley, lead scientist for Coral Cay’s team in Tobago. “The water temperatures are cooling down now and that’s a good thing. … But we’ve seen extensive bleaching around the island.”

In western Caribbean, divers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute found bleaching and water temperatures that were 7 degrees F. warmer than normal – as warm as 89 degrees.

Off the Caribbean coast of Hispaniola – the second largest island in the region behind Cuba – Dominican marine biologist Ruben Torres found that 5 percent of the coral colonies he checked on a recent SCUBA dive trip had some bleaching.

“Our coast was not affected as [badly] as the southern Caribbean,” near Tobago, he says. “I think we got lucky this year.”

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