Hurricane Harvey's record rains didn't just unleash a torrent of floodwaters into the Gulf of Mexico—this freshwater could be harming coral reefs which require saltwater to live, according to new research.
After Harvey dumped more than 13 trillion gallons of rain over southeast Texas, researchers detected a 10 percent drop in salinity at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, located 100 miles off the coast of Galveston, Texas.
"The salinity at one buoy on the reef dropped from 36 to 32 on Sept. 28, but it rebounded to 36 by Oct. 4, and it has been between 35 and 36 since then," said Rice University marine biologist Adrienne Correa. "We don't yet know what impact the low salinity had on the reef while it was there."
Globally, corals occur in a salinity range between 32 and 40, according to the SEOS Project, which notes that the "sudden decreases in salinity due to high freshwater input by rivers or torrential rains ... is seen as a second factor for the disappearance of massive coral reefs in front of large river mouths."
Similarly, the April 2016 "Tax Day Floods" in Houston also led to massive freshwater runoff that harmed coral reefs.
"In late July 2016 there was a partial die-off on the East Flower Garden Banks," Correa said. "We didn't know it was happening until a recreational dive boat happened to go out there and see it. Because we didn't know about the risk ahead of time, we couldn't sample on a timeline that made it easy to figure out a mechanism for the die-off."
This time, "with Harvey, we were able to catch the 'before' much better than we were in 2016," she noted.
Correa hopes Harvey's floodwater plume continues to travel down the coast to the southwest so it will miss the fragile reefs, since direct hit of floodwater would likely devastate the reefs.
However, she pointed out that even without a direct hit, it is possible that eddies and steering currents in the coming months could bring enough floodwater to the reefs to reduce salinity to dangerous levels.
A destroyed reef can greatly disrupt the larger food chain, as a variety of fish and other marine life depends on it. A report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization shows that coral reefs are responsible for producing 17 percent of all globally consumed protein. Crucially, coral reefs generate half of Earth's oxygen and absorb nearly one-third of the carbon dioxide generated from burning fossil fuels.
"When people look at the impact of hurricanes on coral reefs, they often look at physical damage or breakage of reef frameworks by waves and storm surge," Correa said. "Much less is known about the impacts of freshwater influx from the precipitation associated with a hurricane."
Hundreds of endangered sea turtles were stranded on beaches after suffering "cold stunning" in the waters off Cape Cod, Mass. Local rescuers and wildlife rehabilitators stabilized the turtles at the New England Aquarium (NEAQ) and National Marine Life Center and began treatment. Many of the sea turtles were transported by land or air to partner facilities around the Eastern Seaboard for longer-term care to make room for more incoming, cold-stunned animals.
Rehabilitators at The Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys assess critically endangered, cold-stunned Kemp's ridley sea turtles flown in after rescue in New England. The Turtle Hospital<p>NEAQ and local rescuers begin seeing turtles every fall when water temperatures drop to that 50 degrees F threshold, and typically expect to find them into early January. After that, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/sea-turtle-cape-cod-weather-2621527394.html" target="_self">temperatures are so cold that any animals found are usually no longer alive</a>.</p><p>Merigo estimated that this year's cold season "looks very busy" and noted that local rescue efforts had already surpassed 400 turtles.</p><p>"It is a lot of animals. They're still coming in," she told EcoWatch as she surveyed 39 rescued turtles that day and 20 the day prior. "So far, this is a huge year."</p><p>At NEAQ, the turtles are gradually warmed up about five to 10 degrees F a day. More aggressive warming can cause serious damage and the turtle might not survive, Merigo said. Emergency treatments also include providing replacement fluids, balancing electrolytes and addressing pneumonia. Assessments take place for other serious problems too, such as shell or limb fractures, frostbite, emaciation and eye damage.<span></span></p><p>As local aquariums don't have the capacity to care for all the injured turtles, a group of private pilots called <a href="https://www.turtlesflytoo.org/" target="_blank">"Turtles Fly Too"</a> donated planes, fuel and time to transport some to various partner facilities around the country. Other turtles were driven to closer care facilities.</p><p>"We have a huge network of really great partners working with us, so if we can spread out the care, we can give better care to all the animals," Merigo said.</p><p>The 40 Kemp's ridley sea turtles recovering in The Turtle Hospital will continue to be treated and rehabilitated anywhere from 30 days to a year, depending on the severity of injuries, Zirkelbach said.</p><p>The turtle expert noted that while she's treated cold-stunned turtles from the north before, the newest arrivals were the most cold-stunned Kemp's ridleys ever received at one time.</p>
After rescue, cold-stunned sea turtles received immediate emergency care and assessments at the New England Aquarium. Caitlin Cunningham / New England Aquarium<p>In the past decade, the Gulf of Maine, which spans from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, has warmed 99 percent faster than the rest of the ocean, Zirkelbach said. The warm water encourages turtles that migrate north along the Gulf Stream in warmer months to stay in the bay longer.</p><p>"Turtles that fail to migrate south get stuck in the unique horseshoe-shaped topography of the Cape Cod peninsula, and when temperatures drop, the bay becomes a death trap," she added.</p><p>Before ocean temperatures warmed, the waters of Maine were too cold for many of these sea turtles, Merigo echoed. Now, with warming sea surface temperatures, Maine can reach the high 70s to low 80s, which is "perfect turtle temperature," she said. The potential for more turtles getting trapped in the bay and then cold-stunned is nerve-racking for Merigo.</p><p>In addition to shifting habitats as waters warm, warming global temperatures also disrupt natural gender balance in sea turtles, Merigo warned. Gender is determined by the temperature of eggs in nests, and as the planet warms, it will result in all females at some point, she said.</p><p>"The turtles we work with are all endangered and threatened," Merigo said. "For sea turtles in general, the future is a little grim. Climate change is real; it does impact them."</p>
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