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  • Damaged reef from the Caribbean

    Damaged reef from the Caribbean | Photo: Reuters

Published 9 October 2019

Researchers say that the temperature increase in the regional waters has been constant, increasing the vulnerability of these ecosystems over the past 3 decades.

The main threat to coral reefs in the Caribbean is heat stress from ocean warming, said a research unit in Merida, Mexico on Wednesday.

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An investigation by the Center for Research and Advanced Studies (Cinvestav) Merida Unit conducted with the National Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Smithsonian Institute, suggested that the temperature increase in the regional waters has been constant, increasing the vulnerability of these ecosystems.

Previous reports have indicated that heat stress is the main cause of mass bleaching of ocean corals, which can often lead to high rates of disease and even death.

Heat stress affects the structure and cellular metabolism, respiration and stability of coral membranes and the production of plant pigments, preventing them from expressing their maximum yield potential.

This new study offers tools for their conservation in the face of climate change. The scientists used technology that allowed them to register the spatio-temporal variation of heat stress experienced by the coral, based on daily satellite information from the sea’s surface temperature. This information offers a regionalization, division of a territory into smaller areas with common characteristics, within the Caribbean level.

The data collected provides past and present heat stress patterns and their impacts on the sea plants and creatures that make up the coral ecosystems. 

The researchers found that over the past three decades, heat stress affected most regions of the Caribbean, mainly in its southern regions. However, the greatest heat damage, they found, happened in 1998, 2005, 2010-2011 and 2014-2017. This means that the reefs have suffered several, near-consecutive, coral bleaching risk events.

According to Mexican researcher Aaron Israel Muñiz Castillo, 2003 was the year in which the reefs were most exposed to bleaching due to the "El Niño phenomenon, the Southern Oscillation, (and) the constant increase in exposure to heat stress," the scientist told EFE. 

The research also emphasizes the importance of generating information in areas of emerging heat stress, among which are Mesoamerican Reef and the Mexican Caribbean.

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