Hurricanes Heal Reefs in Surprising Cases

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"Our underwater surveys showed that bleached corals in Florida immediately responded to the cooler water," Manzello said. By November the reefs had almost completely recovered.

At the same time, elsewhere in the Caribbean, the U.S. Virgin Islands remained hurricane free, and the reefs underwent far more intense and persistent coral bleaching than their Florida counterparts. (See map of the Virgin Islands.)

U.S. Virgin Islands reefs only began to recover in January 2006, when sea temperatures finally dropped, Manzello said.

A Silver Lining?

"There is rigorous scientific debate on whether warmer oceans will result in increased storm frequency," Manzello noted.

In one sense, more storms would mean more direct damage to reefs. But "they could result in increased cooling pulses to temperature-stressed reefs," he said.

Nancy Knowlton, a marine biology professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, said the study offers a different perspective on what is normally considered a disaster for reefs.

"This is a classic example of every cloud having a silver lining," Knowlton said.

"I'll take any good news for coral reefs."

Study co-author Manzello said that the study, which will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests hurricane cooling won't completely nullify the dire prognosis for coral reefs under climate change. (Related: "Global Warming Has Devastating Effect on Coral Reefs, Study Shows" [May 16, 2006].)

"Nonetheless, a well-timed hurricane has the potential to [lessen] the negative effects of increased temperatures."

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