Black water turns the tide on Florida coral

In early 2002, a patch of "black water" spanning over 60 miles in diameter formed off southwestern Florida and contributed to severe coral reef stress and death in the Florida Keys, according to results published from research funded by NASA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The "black water" contained a high abundance of toxic and non-toxic microscopic plants.

Chuanmin Hu and other colleagues at the Institute for Marine Remote Sensing of the University of South Florida (USF), St. Petersburg, Fla., and colleagues from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC) and the University of Georgia, co-authored an article on this phenomenon that appeared as the cover story of a recent issue of the American Geophysical Union's Geophysical Research Letters.

"The water appeared black in satellite imagery because the concentration of the microscopic plants and other dissolved matters were high," Hu said. Because plants and dissolved matter absorb sunlight, they reduce the amount of light normally reflected from the ocean.

When a red-tide bloom occurs the water takes on various hues of red or brown. While not all microscopic plants contribute to red tides, the darker hue created by both the plankton and the harmful algal blooms made the water appear black when seen from the satellite.

When Hu and his colleagues examined the data collected by divers from the dark water area in the Florida Keys, they discovered a 70 percent decrease in stony coral cover, a 40 percent reduction of coral species, and a near-elimination of sponge colonies at two reef sites after the dark water passed. By examining satellite images and field survey data, the authors concluded that the coral reef ecosystem was stressed by microscopic organisms and toxins contained in the dark water.

The "black water" event caused alarm among local fishermen, divers, and the public, as the

Contact: Rob Gutro
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

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