Climate Change

a colony of white, branching corals
Heat-related stress causes corals to expel their symbiotic algae and turn white — a phenomenon known as coral bleaching. Photo: NOAA

Animals breathe oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen back into the air. It's a symbiotic life process. But what happens when too much carbon dioxide is produced? When we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil, and methane gas to power our homes and fuel our cars, a byproduct is the production of carbon dioxide that gets released into the atmosphere. We call this "rampant carbon dioxide" because there's too much of it. This rampant carbon dioxide builds up in the atmosphere and acts like a heat-trapping blanket, warming the Earth and ocean.

The atmosphere is like a blanket that surrounds the Earth. When we burn fossil fuels for energy, we add carbon dioxide to this blanket making it thicker. The thicker a blanket gets, the more heat it traps underneath. The blanket effect leads to warming, which disrupts the climate. For example, this extra heat and carbon dioxide results in rising sea levels; changes in the frequency, intensity, and distribution of tropical storms; changes in ocean chemistry; coral bleaching; and altered ocean circulation. All of these impacts can have negative consequences for the health and diversity of natural places around the world, including in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Climate Impacts on Sanctuary Resources

The effects of climate change are already evident in places like the Florida Keys. You can read more about the specific climate change impacts affecting Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, as well as the full range of climate change impacts across the National Marine Sanctuary System, by accessing these Climate Change Impact Profiles.


Individual Actions

In the Florida Keys, communities are supporting renewable energy by signing up through solar cooperatives. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary's Florida Keys Eco Discovery Center is a solar powered facility. Community choices like this reduce carbon dioxide emissions to slow ocean warming and help protect vibrant places like Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary for the future.

solar panels on the roof of a building
Solar panels on the roof of the Florida Keys Eco Discovery Center provide green energy for the facility. Photo: NOAA

Science and Policy

Another way to strengthen corals in the face of rising temperatures is to keep them healthy. When corals face multiple stressors at once, it can be harder for them to bounce back from a bleaching event. Promoting good water quality and preventing physical damage to corals are two things the sanctuary can do to help corals be more resilient during thermal events. The sanctuary's mooring buoy program was created to allow boaters to explore the reefs without dropping anchors on corals and damaging them. The Water Quality Protection Program is designed to understand and address sources of pollution and maintain the water quality conditions needed for healthy marine habitats.


While climate change is a big problem, the ecosystems of Florida Keys National Marine sanctuary can play a role in slowing the change through mitigation. As the ultimate cause of climate change is rampant carbon dioxide, mitigation requires removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and keeping from returning. One powerful mitigation strategy is blue carbon, the ability of ocean and coastal ecosystems to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it for long periods of time. Habitats like the mangroves, seagrasses, and salt marshes found throughout Florida are critical blue carbon habitats. In fact, mangroves can draw down 10 times the carbon dioxide per area than land-based forests! By protecting these important blue carbon habitats, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is helping to ensure that they can continue to play a critical role as a nature-based solution to climate change.


Adaptation to climate change can take many forms. For habitats like coral reefs, one option is to restore areas in a way that considers the challenges posed by climate change can help ecosystems adapt to changing conditions. Florida's coral reefs face numerous threats including overfishing, pollution, habitat loss, vessel groundings, disease, extreme weather, and climate change. The sanctuary is applying climate-smart reef restoration approaches through the Mission: Iconic Reefs, a large-scale NOAA-led and partner-driven project to restore corals at seven reef sites in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This project does not just focus on planting corals to revitalize the reef, but takes proactive steps to create more resilient reefs by introducing more climate-tolerant and disease-resilient corals while also removing nuisance and invasive species.

The project also includes the reintroduction of herbivorous crabs and sea urchins to improve habitat quality, which can reduce potential stressors to outplanted corals, making the reef system more resilient and adaptive to future conditions. This kind of climate-smart restoration will help the Florida Keys reefs adapt to climate change by reducing non-climate stressors and making them both more resilient and better able to adapt to warmer and more acidic waters. Beyond the environmental benefits this restoration will bring, adaptive coral reefs will also increase the resilience and adaptation of the Key's human communities by buffering the shoreline from storm impacts and erosion.

Future generations depend on the decisions and plans we make today. By working together, we can protect natural places like Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary from a warming ocean.

Learn more about climate change with these educational resources.