CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands – Caribbean Sea temperatures have reached their annual high two months ahead of schedule — a sign coral reefs may suffer the same widespread damage as last year, scientists said Monday.
Sea temperatures around Puerto Rico and the Florida Keys reached 83.5 degrees Saturday — a high not normally seen until September, said Al Strong, a scientist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch.
"We've got a good two more months of heating," Strong told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Washington. "If it were to go up another degree, it would be pretty serious. That's what we had last year."
Researchers fear another hot summer could be disastrous for coral still recovering from last year, when up to 40 percent of coral died in abnormally warm seas around the U.S. Virgin Islands.
High sea temperatures stress coral, making the already fragile undersea life even more susceptible to disease and premature death.
Scientists have not pinpointed what is behind the warm sea temperatures but some speculate global warming might be the cause.
NOAA alerted scuba-dive operators and underwater researchers to be careful around the reefs, which are easily damaged by physical contact, Strong said.
The warning is in effect until the waters cool off — which is not likely for a few months.
Land-based runoff can also damage the reefs, Strong said.
"Now is not the time to dump a lot of fertilizer on the golf course," he said. "This is a time of high stress and a time to be more aware when you're out there."
A building block for undersea life, the coral reefs are a sheltered habitat for fish, lobsters and other animals to feed and breed. They also deflect storm waves that might otherwise wash away the Caribbean's famed beaches.
A record 9 percent of elkhorn coral — vital for reef building — died last year around the U.S. Virgin Islands and much more was damaged. Elkhorn is one of the faster-growing corals at some 8 inches a year, compared with less than an inch for other varieties.
Millions of people visit the Caribbean each year to dive and snorkel over the region's coral reefs, part of a multibillion-dollar tourism industry.