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Climate change: Impacts on wildlife


FLORIDA – Hidden beneath ocean waters lies a magnificent world of complex ecosystems that are endlessly intertwined. Now experts say the delicate balance has been disrupted by rising tides and temperatures from climate change.

“Florida has the third largest barrier reef in the world. A lot of people don’t realize it. And it’s along our south Atlantic coast, ”said Dr. Deborah Luke, senior vice president of conservation at the Florida Aquarium. “So where we’re at right now, this barrier reef does exactly what its name says. It’s a barrier. So when you think of the tidal flow and the impacts of the ocean, it does an amazing job. If we didn’t have these reefs, the storm impacts would be much worse than they already are.

Coastal protection is just the start. Coral reefs serve as nurseries and feeding grounds for hundreds of thousands of different aquatic species – an ecosystem that has a direct impact on the global food chain, right down to the commercial fishing industry that feeds us. . So is tourism, with NOAA valuing Southeast Florida’s reefs at $ 8.5 billion in economic impact. Simply put, the ripple effect of the loss of coral would be devastating both in and out of the water.

A coral tank at the Florida Aquarium. The conditions of the reservoir mimic the waters of the Florida Keys, allowing the species to reproduce successfully as it would in the wild. (Cait McVey / Spectrum Bay News 9)

“Climate change affects reefs in different ways. The first and foremost way we see the biggest impact is the change in water temperature, ”said Dr Luke. “Corals have symbionts which are algae that actually live with baby corals and adult corals. This is what gives coral its colors. And when the water heats up, these symbiotes come out of the coral. This is what causes corals to bleach. We see a lot of them. Not only here in Florida, but we see it all over the world.

This makes the Florida Aquarium’s conservation efforts more urgent than ever.

“What we’re really excited about is that we have our induced spawning lab here where we have reservoirs that we put corals in, and we have artificial lighting in there,” explained Dr. Luke. “Fully computerized LED lighting. It therefore corresponds to the environmental conditions of the Florida Keys. We mimic the temperature of the water, the salinity, we mimic the cycles of the moon every day. And what we’ve been able to do over the past three years is induce coral to spawn at the exact moment it spawns in the wild.

The baby corals are then reared in coral greenhouses. It’s a slow but rewarding process that ends without planting at sea what Dr. Luke calls tougher corals.

Baby corals are grown into adult corals in the Florida Aquarium’s coral greenhouses. (Cait McVey / Spectrum Bay News 9)

“If we know that Coral A seems to do better in warmer waters, we can mate it with Coral B and see if the AB babies are a bit more resistant to warmer waters. And that’s really a key component, ”said Dr Luke. “We can breed all the corals we want here, but if we put them back there and they don’t survive, why are we doing this?” The key is that we have to be at the forefront, at the forefront, and that’s what we do to find ways to make corals more resilient and protect them along the way. “

And in turn, protecting the biodiversity of an underwater ecosystem that includes yet another neat species at the Apollo Beach aquarium site.

“A lot of the impacts that we are seeing with coral reefs due to climate change, we are seeing impacts with all different species and sea turtles are no exception,” said Dr. Luke. “Sea turtles migrate and they use very strong currents that generally follow the migration patterns each year. And what we see is that as the water warms up these currents change, which means the turtles change direction and move, but there may not be the species of prey they need there. “

This year, the aquarium saved a record number of turtles in June.

“We have doubled our capacity,” said Dr Luke. “Typically, we bring in around 30 to 35 a year. We have already brought 32.

Many were stunned by the cold and struggling for survival when they arrived from as far away as New England.

“What we see are changes when it starts to get cold. We’re also seeing, depending on where you live in the country, that some places are getting colder, ”Dr Luke said. “It’s climate change. It’s not just global warming. It’s climate change.

And this has an impact on all five species in Florida, each listed as endangered or threatened. It’s a status made worse by the erosion of Florida’s shorelines, in part due to rising tides and intensifying storms.

“This is where sea turtles nest. This is where they lay their eggs, ”said Dr. Luke. “If they go up and there is nothing to lay on, they don’t lay them. It only takes a few years to realize that the species are all gone. “

Since 2015, Florida has spent more than $ 329 million on beach restoration projects statewide, including more than $ 60 million in the fiscal year following Hurricane Irma. Honeymoon Island in Dunedin, the busiest state park, has just undergone its second draft since that 2015 baseline. Officials said it was not even possible for sea turtles to nest on the stretch of 3,000 feet on which they worked.

In the last round of funding for this problem, the state announced $ 100 million in the new state budget, along with an allocation of $ 50 million in federal stimulus dollars, all intended for reconstruction. beaches.

Here in Tampa Bay, local efforts are also underway. But rather than reconnecting with what already exists, volunteers can create whole new ecosystems.

“Our mission has sort of evolved from simply returning oysters to reducing erosion on many of the shores around Tampa Bay. One of our methods is to create living shorelines, ”said Richard Radigan, seashell coordinator at Tampa Bay Watch.

First, sea concrete oyster balls are installed to break the waves hitting the shore. Then, bags of oyster shells are stacked, in the hope that the oysters will attach themselves and form a new habitat. Finally, the last layer of each project consists of seagrass, completing a new eco-friendly ecosystem.

“When you establish these oyster reef balls, then the seashells and then the grass, you provide habitat for a lot of species,” Radigan said. “This is such an environmentally beneficial area that if we can establish more and more of it, it only improves the water quality in Tampa Bay as a whole. “