Science

Hurricanes Damaged Caribbean Coral Reefs

Coral reefs around the world have been lately exposed to risk as a result of global warming which has led to warmer waters, followed by ocean acidification. Nevertheless, another risk to these wonderful natural systems is hurricanes that have been devastating the lands throughout the previous years. Earlier this year, when the hurricanes raged through, they devastated the Caribbean coral reefs and now scientists are trying to study it as a part of a project which can help them learn whether and how corals heal from disasters.

Caribbean Coral Reefs
Image source: YouTube Video Screenshot

Scientists from the University of Buffalo, State University of New York (UB), and California State University, Northridge (CSUN) went to St. John, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, in November in order to conduct their study concerning the Caribbean Coral Reefs. In order to understand the corals’ recovery, scientists had to get a hold of the damage done to the corals from the hurricanes Maria and Irma.

“Hurricanes generate huge waves. The effect is like sandblasting – the waves carry sand and debris, such as bits of broken coral, onto the reefs striking them over and over again,” University of Buffalo’s Howar Lasker said, according to the statement published on Tuesday.

There were colonies that have lost their branches or were covered in algial growth or bacteria which is harmful for the corals.

“A once-vibrant reef was now littered with broken coral, the remains of soft sponges and soft coral ripped from their homes on the ocean floor, and 5- to 10-ton boulders that had been tossed about as if they were pebbles. Going deeper underwater, the signs of destruction were less obvious but could still impact life on the reefs for generations to come,” according to the statement on Tuesday released by CSUN.

“For one, there are a very large number of underwater projectiles now lying on the ocean floor that could cause damage. It certainly wouldn’t take much for a future storm to pick up those pieces and pound them against the rest of the remaining reef. In that sense, the reef is more prone to physical damage…. There are a lot of hammers sitting on the sea floor, ready to be picked up and thrown against the anvil,” CSUN’s Peter Edmunds said according to the statement.

Corals are small and simple marine animals that reside on the seafloor and form colonies, mostly in shallow waters which are not more than 200 feet deep. However, they are also home to many algae, which allow corals to have wonderful colors. These colonies of corals are also home to many different fish species, and other sea animals as well. The Caribbean coral reefs getting damaged by hurricanes affects the entire marine ecosystem and jeopardizes the habitat of the marine animals that live there.

About the damage done by the hurricanes, Lasker said in a statement, “It’s an interesting natural experiment. You could not, in good conscience, conduct such an experiment on your own as a scientist, and it is sad to see these beautiful places in the ocean damaged so severely. But we can learn from this — it gives us the chance to better understand the process of recovery.”