Thermal history of reef-associated environments during a record cold-air outbreak event
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Several polar continental air masses intruding into the south Florida/northern Bahama Bank region during January 1981 caused record low air temperatures and rapid chilling of extensive shallow-water carbonate systems. Numerous “coral kills” along the Florida reef tract and massive fish mortalities in Florida Bay were attributable to unusually cold waters generated at this time. Thermal evolution of Florida Bay/Florida reef tract and northern Bahama Bank waters from 8 to 21 January was assessed from thermal infrared data acquired by the NOAA-6 environmental satellite, in situ water temperatures, local meteorological data, and a computerized heat flux model. Field observations and laboratory experiments identify 16°C as a thermal stress threshold for most reef corals (Mayor 1915; Davis 1981). Temperaturecorrected digital satellite data indicated that water temperatures below 16°C were generated in Florida Bay and on Little and Great Bahama Banks during a 10-day period in January. Lowest temperatures on the Florida reef tract resulted from offshelf transport of Florida Bay water through major tidal channels. Offshelf movement of bay water is driven primarily by strong northerly winds, density gradients, and tidal pumping. Absence of reef development opposite major tidal passes along the Florida reef tract (Ginsburg and Shinn 1964) and aperiodic coral kills along bank margins can be attributed to this process, which has probably had a limiting influence on Holocene reef development in these areas.
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