Scientists say Florida's coral reef system, the third-largest in the world, is in rapid decay, with a variety of threats edging the delicate ecosystem closer to collapse sooner than anyone believed possible.
"We didn't think this would happen for another 50 or 60 years," said Chris Langdon, a marine biologist at the University of Miami, who published a new report on the health of the reef in May. "This study showed a whole new thing we didn't even know was threatening them."
Langdon and his team discovered that as ocean water becomes more acidic, due to carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, the structures that support the coral are beginning to disintegrate.
"When you add acid to a piece of limestone, you'll see it fizz up. That's what we're talking about here," said Langdon. "We can definitely see less each year, less coral than the year before."
Despite the mounting controversies about what is weakening Florida's coral reefs, scientists warn the consequences of letting the trend continue could be staggering.
"People who don't live as close don't care as much, but they should get the message they are going to be affected as well," said Langdon. "It's going to affect our economy, it's going to affect our jobs."
According to NOAA's website, the corals bring in about $8.5 billion to Florida's economy, helping to keep about 70,000 people employed.
"The straw is going to break the camel's back," said Langdon. "If you're getting eaten away by cancer, you want to attack it right away before the tumors get too big... We've got to wake up and do something."
You can support Florida reef preservation by purchasing the Protect our Reefs Florida specialty license plate today: