Environmental quality and preservation; reefs, corals, and carbonate sands; guides to reef-ecosystem health and environment

Open-File Report 2000-164




Introduction In recent years, the health of the entire coral reef ecosystem that lines the outer shelf off the Florida Keys has declined markedly. In particular, loss of those coral species that are the building blocks of solid reef framework has significant negative implications for economic vitality of the region. What are the reasons for this decline? Is it due to natural change, or are human activities (recreational diving, ship groundings, farmland runoff, nutrient influx, air-borne contaminants, groundwater pollutants) a contributing factor and if so, to what extent? At risk of loss are biologic resources of the reefs, including habitats for endangered species in shoreline mangroves, productive marine and wetland nurseries, and economic fisheries. A healthy reef ecosystem builds a protective offshore barrier to catastrophic wave action and storm surges generated by tropical storms and hurricanes. In turn, a healthy reef protects the homes, marinas, and infrastructure on the Florida Keys that have been designed to capture a lucrative tourism industry. A healthy reef ecosystem also protects inland agricultural and livestock areas of South Florida whose produce and meat feed much of the United States and other parts of the world. In cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Marine Sanctuary Program, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) continues longterm investigations of factors that may affect Florida's reefs. One of the first steps in distinguishing between natural change and the effects of human activities, however, is to determine how coral reefs have responded to past environmental change, before the advent of man. By so doing, accurate scientific information becomes available for Marine Sanctuary management to understand natural change and thus to assess and regulate potential human impact better. The USGS studies described here evaluate the distribution (location) and historic vitality (thickness) of Holocene reefs in South Florida, relative to type of underlying bedrock morphology, and their varied natural response to rising sea level. These studies also assess movement and accumulation of sands, relative to direction of prevailing energy, and origin of the component sand grains. Geophysical data collected with highresolution sound-wave instruments that provide pictures of the sediment and bedrock are used to interpret sediment thickness. Reef thickness is determined by collecting limestone rock cores by drilling. Drill cores through reefs are used to identify the coral species that built them and to determine how reefs reacted to rising sea level. These data are supplemented by using isotope-dating techniques to derive the carbon-14 (C14) age of the corals and mangrove peat in the cores. Mangrove peat forms in very shallow water and at the shoreline but is found today buried beneath offshore reefs.

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USGS Numbered Series
Environmental quality and preservation; reefs, corals, and carbonate sands; guides to reef-ecosystem health and environment
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Open-File Report
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U.S. Dept. of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey,
3 sheets (2 folded) (6 p., [1] leaf of plates) :ill. (some col.), col. map ;28 cm.