Emily Hower, a research assistant at Nova Southeastern University doing field work on coral off Key West in Florida, bobs up out of the water and removes her diving mask. The news is not good.
Most of the pillar coral that her team have been monitoring for years are dead.
Left: Graduate students Bradley Arrington and Kathryn Cableigh pull a basket filled with corals afflicted by Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease to their research vessel. Right: Karen Neely (left) works during a dive to collect samples of corals afflicted by Stony Tissue Loss Disease.
"It is a huge disaster that's going on underneath the waves," says Karen Neely, a coral ecologist at Nova. "This is on the level of the Amazon burning. It is on the level of a disease that's wiping out all of America's forests."
Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease attacks the tissue of coral, transforming healthy, vibrant marine ecosystems into drab, dead worlds within weeks.
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The disease has ravaged the entire Atlantic reef off Florida, spread across parts of the Caribbean, and has recently been reported near Belize in central America. Pillar coral, whose clusters of spiky fingers appear to reach up from the sea bed, is "reproductively extinct" off the Florida coast, says Keri O'Neil, chief coral scientist at the Florida Aquarium.
At the aquarium, a rare ray of hope comes from a room that has the lights off for much of the year. Here, an elaborate and expensive system of LED lights is designed to emulate sunrises, sunsets and phases of the moon to coax pillar coral in tanks into reproducing as if they were in the ocean.
Such a loss would represent "a loss of biodiversity which could be a source for future medicines, the loss of fisheries, the loss of tourism value," says Brandt. "A lot of Caribbean islands have part of their culture based around coral reefs and if you lose those reefs you lose an aspect of their culture."