SOURCE: Florida Institute of Technology

Florida Institute of Technology

February 24, 2015 09:39 ET

New Florida Tech Study Links Coral Disease to a Warming Atlantic

White-Band Disease, Culprit in Disappearing Reefs, Driven by Rising Temperatures

MELBOURNE, FL--(Marketwired - February 24, 2015) - Over the last four decades, the iconic elkhorn and staghorn corals that dominated Caribbean reefs for millions of years have all but disappeared. According to a new study from Florida Institute of Technology, ocean warming has played a significant role in this dramatic decline.

The results of the study also suggest that limiting the rate of ocean warming, which would require curbing greenhouse gas emissions, could support the recovery of these critical reef-building corals. 

White-band disease is a widespread coral disease that affects elkhorn and staghorn corals, and this disease has been plaguing these corals for decades. Florida Tech Ph.D. student Carly Randall and her faculty advisor, Robert van Woesik, studied the relationship between ocean temperatures and white-band disease and reported their findings in the February issue of Nature Climate Change. More on the study can be found at http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate2530.html.

Randall and van Woesik wanted to know if changes in ocean temperatures associated with climate change have contributed to the spread of the disease throughout the Caribbean. The answer, according to their research, was that the rising temperatures did affect the disease's spread.

"Our data show that climate change has helped drive down staghorn and elkhorn corals by boosting white-band disease," Randall said. "We still don't know if the disease is caused by a marine microbe, but now we do know that changes in the environment contributed to the problem."

The study also found that the disease is more common in places where the waters have been warming most rapidly and where the waters stay unusually warm in the winter season. The scientists think that without a cooling-off period, the effects of the hot summers linger, and the disease is more likely to worsen. 

Corals build the foundation of coral reefs, and these ecosystems provide critical services including shoreline protection and erosion prevention. Coral reefs also provide habitat for commercial and recreational fisheries.

Because of their decline, both the elkhorn and staghorn coral species are now listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered species act.

White-band disease, which is named for the stark white bands that advance along the coral's branches, has been around for decades. Yet scientists have struggled to identify the causes of the disease. The results of this study are a critical step forward in our understanding of white-band disease.

"The discipline has been stumped for more than 20 years because the environment played a larger role than we first anticipated," van Woesik said. "We are a step closer to predicting where diseases are occurring because now we know why they are occurring."

About Florida Institute of Technology

Founded at the dawn of the Space Race in 1958, Florida Tech is the only independent, technological university in the Southeast. PayScale.com ranks graduates' mid-career median salaries in first place among Florida's universities, and lists Florida Tech among the top 20 universities in the South -- both public and private. Featured among the top 200 universities in the world according to Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the university has been named a Barron's Guide "Best Buy" in College Education, designated a Tier One Best National University in U.S. News & World Report, and is one of just nine schools in Florida lauded by the Fiske Guide to Colleges. The university offers undergraduate, master's and doctoral programs. Fields of study include science, engineering, aeronautics, business, humanities, mathematics, psychology, communication and education. Additional information is available online at www.fit.edu.

About Nature Climate Change

Understanding the Earth's changing climate, and its consequences, is a scientific challenge of enormous importance to society. Nature Climate Change is a monthly journal dedicated to publishing the most significant and cutting-edge research on the science of climate change, its impacts and wider implications for the economy, society and policy. The journal follows the standards for high-quality science set by all Nature-branded journals and is committed to publishing top-tier original research in all areas relating to climate change through a fair and rigorous review process, access to a broad readership, high standards of copy editing and production, rapid publication and independence from academic societies and others with vested interests. www.nature.com/nclimate/about/index.html

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