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Florida scientists seek to save coral reefs from bleaching as ocean temperatures rise

Florida researchers working to save coral reefs
Florida researchers working to save coral reefs 03:14

MIAMI -- Florida's coral reefs hit a critical point this summer as record ocean heat led to widespread coral bleaching and were blamed for destroying coral that had been part of a seven-year reef restoration process.

The situation put researchers on alert.

''That really sounded the alarm for us," said Dalton Hesley, a senior research associate at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School. "We could lose all the coral we had been growing over the last decade from this single bleaching event which meant we had to act."

Florida reefs
Florida reefs CBS News Miami

And act they did as he and his fellow scientists went into rescue mode. Although these events happen every year, this summer proved to be different. 

"Typically, this bleaching event happens over weeks," Hesley said. "We're seeing these corals cooked in a matter of days which was alarming." 

That led researchers to convert what little space they had into what he called a coral arc.

"It was necessary to protect the corals from the extreme heat they were experiencing," Hesley said.

Once the coral was removed it was taken back the the campus on Virginia Key where it was kept under the watchful eye of Cameron McMcath, facilities manager at Coral Reef Futures Lab.

"We offer a safe-haven from some of the temperature stresses they are going through but also some of the research done by the UM Students," he said. 

Its research, in addition to protecting the coral in these tanks, will be key to ensuring the reef not only survives, but grows.

"Losing corals to an event like this has an extremely dire impact on both the ecosystem and the community that depends on them," Hesley said.

That means divers exploring the beauty of the living reef won't be able to do so, which also benefit coastal communities for what they leave behind.

"Corals are a living animal that create a framework that marine organisms call home, protect our coastline and support our economy," Hesley said.

It's not just protecting the corals in these tanks that's important but helping them better adapt since a warming ocean may lead to more and more events like the one we had this summer. 

"Over the coming months we will continue to monitor and better understand how impactful this bleaching event was what coral might have become more resistant," Hesley said.

Once they can determine if a certain type of coral can better handle the warmer ocean then they help that type grow.

" We then take those corals that have the toughness to them, those are the ones we're putting back on the reefs again," McMath said.

With climate change and a warming oceans, bleaching events will become more common and intense and these researches done want to be the only ones fighting so save them.

"The norm has shifted," Hesley said. "How do we scale up coral rescue and restoration along with research and public action. We're a small team and this is a big event."

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