Coral disease is causing reefs to die off in the Atlantic Ocean, and climatologists believe rising global temperatures could be to blame for the phenomenon.

White-band disease is responsible for the disappearance of massive coral reefs, and a study finds the condition may be spread by warming waters.

Staghorn and elkhorn corals were prevalent throughout the Caribbean for millions of years. However, those lifeforms have largely disappeared over the last forty years. Researchers believe that global warming may be to blame for the loss of these reefs.

Florida Institute of Technology researchers examined how white-band disease could be connected to rising ocean temperatures. The disease is common among elkhorn and staghorn corals. Investigation revealed that rising temperatures in water helped the disease spread through reefs. The disease was also found to be most common in areas where warming is greatest.

"Our data show that climate change has helped drive down staghorn and elkhorn corals by boosting white-band disease. We still don't know if the disease is caused by a marine microbe, but now we do know that changes in the environment contributed to the problem," Carly Randall of Florida Tech said.

White-band disease has been recognized as a problem in corals for several decades. Although the actual mechanism by which the disease spreads is still unknown, this new study shows that global warming is fueling the problem, making the condition more widespread than normal.

Warmer temperatures in oceans mean that corals cool off less in winter than they otherwise would, leading to an increased incidence of the disease among corals, researchers stated.

"The discipline has been stumped for more than 20 years because the environment played a larger role than we first anticipated. We are a step closer to predicting where diseases are occurring because now we know why they are occurring," Robert van Woesik of Florida Tech said.

Coral reefs provide numerous benefits to marine ecosystems, becoming homes to numerous species of fish and other animals that can live nowhere else. The structures also provide a habitat for many species that are targeted by commercial fisheries and private anglers, so loss of reefs could have a significant impact on the availability of some fish for human consumption. Both elkhorn and staghorn corals are now classified as threatened by the federal government.

It is possible that limiting rising ocean temperatures by reducing the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere could result in coral reefs returning to their native habitats.

Investigation of the role of global warming in the loss of coral reefs was published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

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