A dying coral reef acts as the world’s ultimate warning system as sea temperatures soar

Coral reefs should be brightly coloured and filled with life but the bleached white Cheeca Rocks offers a stark warning, as Robert Moore reports

It is a coral reef in the western Atlantic, a few miles off the Florida Keys. But it is also so much more than just another vulnerable ecosystem in a world of warming oceans.

Cheeca Rocks is the centre of intensive marine science, perhaps the most closely observed coral reef in the world.

Most importantly, it serves - or, at least, it should serve - as a global warning system.

If Cheeca Rocks is in severe distress, so is the ocean, and so is our planet.

Much of the world’s focus this year has been on land temperatures and wildfires.

But record-breaking ocean temperatures this summer are also putting extreme stress on fragile ecosystems that sustain a quarter of all marine life. 

Ian Enochs and a post-doctoral student, Patrick Kiel, take pictures of the coral reef. Credit: ITV News

For marine biologists like Ian Enochs it is also an emotional investment. He works primarily with scientific data, and is part of a broad effort by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to understand the changing climate.

But for all his scientific background, he speaks of this reef like a proud - and profoundly worried - parent.

Why he is worried becomes clear to us on a visit to the coral reef.

The ocean temperature is an extraordinarily warm 31 degrees Celsius - about the same as a hot bath - and the impact of that is clear the moment we put on masks, snorkels and fins, and enter the water.

Coral reef biologist Ian Enochs Credit: ITV News

I was expecting to look down on a technicolour world packed with marine life, similar to coral reefs that exist around the world.

Instead it is a monochrome ecosystem, devoid of colour, that is visibly in deep trouble.

All the coral is bleached white as far as the eye can see. The scene is eerie and ghostly. A few fish glide around, but the reef is clearly dying.

Whether it can be revived if ocean temperatures cool is a source of much debate in the world of marine ecology.

Post-doctoral student, Patrick Kiel. Credit: ITV News

Ian Enochs and a post-doctoral student, Patrick Kiel, begin their meticulous work monitoring and filming the reef, taking thousands of images to help build a 3D digital model of the unfolding ecological disaster.

We film them as they film the coral. It is like observing doctors with a severely sick patient. The doctors are alarmed by the symptoms but they refuse to give up hope.

Nash Soderberg from the NOAA gives ITV News a tour of a lab in Miami where scientists use research aquariums to study the impact of a diverse range of climate change factors

Ian tells me that if there is global action to address carbon emissions and a relentless focus on marine science then it is not too late to save the world’s fragile coral reefs.

But time is running out. The evidence is displayed for us to see on the shallow seabed, a world of colour now reduced to shades of white, foreshadowing much worse to come. 

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