OFF THE COAST OF GALVESTON, Texas — Divers descending into azure waters far off the Texas coast dip below a horizon dotted with oil and gas platforms into an otherworldly landscape of undersea mountains crusted with yellow, orange and pink coral as far as the eye can see.
Some of the world’s healthiest coral reefs can be found in the Gulf of Mexico, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) off the Texas coast. Sheltered in a deep, cool habitat far from shore, the reefs in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary boast a stunning amount of coral coverage. But scientists say that like all reefs, they are fragile, and their location will only offer protection for so long in the face of a warming climate.
“To see that much coral in one place is really magnificent — an experience that most people don’t get on reefs in this day and age,” said Michelle Johnston, the acting superintendent and research coordinator for the federally protected area.
The sanctuary had some moderate bleaching this year but nothing like the devastation that hit other reefs during the summer’s record-breaking heat. Still, Johnston said that’s among her top concerns for the sanctuary’s future. Waters that get too warm cause corals to expel their colorful algae and turn white. They can survive if temperatures fall but they are left more vulnerable to disease and may eventually die.
Florida’s coral reef — the world’s third-largest — experienced an unprecedented and potentially deadly level of bleaching over the summer. Derek Manzello, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch, said that so far this year, at least 35 countries and territories across five oceans and seas have experienced mass coral bleaching. He said it’s too early to know how much of Florida’s reefs will recover since coral may die as much as a year or two after the bleaching.
Manzello said climate models suggest that all of the world’s coral will be suffering severe bleaching every year beginning around 2040.
“If you have severe bleaching events every year, the prognosis is not good because that basically means the corals aren’t going to have a chance to recover,” he said.
Sanctuary officials say even in the occasional years when Flower Garden Banks has experienced more serious bleaching than this year, it has bounced back quickly thanks to its overall health and depth, and it’s already recovering this year.
A report expected in the coming months will look at the sanctuary’s vulnerability to the projected effects of climate change.
The Flower Garden Banks stands out for its amount of coral cover — an average of over 50 percent across some areas of the sanctuary — compared with around 10 percent cover in the Caribbean and