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Coral reefs are dying around the world, and a new study suggests a way to save them. The study out of the Florida Keys shows that a lot of the stress on corals comes from local sources, which means there are things local communities can do to help the corals. NPR's Pien Huang reports.
PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Brian Lapointe has watched half of Florida's corals die off in the past 20 years.
BRIAN LAPOINTE: Watching the decline of coral at Looe Key has been heartbreaking. I live in the Florida Keys, and when I moved here in the early 1980s, I had no idea that we would be losing these corals.
HUANG: Lapointe, a professor at Florida Atlantic University, has spent his career studying corals at the Looe Key reef in the Florida Keys. He's the lead author on a new paper out in the journal Marine Biology. It analyzes 30 years of data he's collected, and his conclusion is actually hopeful.
LAPOINTE: You've got quite a story here when you put all this together that there actually is hope for coral reefs after all.
HUANG: How does he figure? Lapointe thought his study would show that warming temperatures were killing off corals, but his data actually showed that the corals' biggest problem was another human source - too much nitrogen. It comes from badly treated sewage as well as fertilizer and topsoil from people's yards and farms. It feeds blooms of algae that block out the light. It also throws off the nutrient balance in the water and makes the corals more likely to catch disease, to go through coral bleaching and to die. Michael Fox studies coral reefs at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He wasn't involved in the study, but he appreciates its long-term view.
MICHAEL FOX: We're starting to have enough data to really track the impacts of local-scale stressors to corals over long enough timeframes to understand how the communities are changing.
HUANG: James Porter of the University of Georgia co-authored the Florida study. He says that in the past, most scientists and the public figured that there was little we could do to help corals unless we fixed all of climate change.
JAMES PORTER: What our study shows is that taking care of runoff from the land, which is a local phenomenon - that can protect coral reefs, too.
HUANG: Porter says their findings from Florida can apply to reefs around the world and that better sewage and storm water treatment might give corals a fighting chance at surviving climate change. Pien Huang, NPR News.
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