Florida Keys coral reef

University of Georgia scientists found that an extended cold snap in 2010 had similar damaging effects on coral in the Florida Keys as the potential damage from warming seas. (By NOAA Photo Library)

Extreme low water temperatures can have damaging effects on Florida’s fragile coral reefs similar to high temperatures feared from climate change, according to a new paper from University of Georgia scientists.

The study came in reaction to an extended cold weather stretch in January and February 2010 that damaged sections of reef in the Florida Keys.

Temperatures at inshore reefs in the upper Keys dropped below 54 degrees and stayed below 64 degrees for two weeks during that time period.

Much of the coral at Admiral Reef off Key Largo was "essentially dead" three weeks after the extended cold snap, according to lead author Dustin Kemp, a University of Georgia postdoctoral associate. Large corals, estimated to be about 300 years old, couldn’t survive the cold, researchers found.

The scientists determined that offshore reefs did better in cold weather, thanks to warmer water in the Gulf Stream.

The University of Georgia scientist maintain that their findings don’t downplay concerns about rising water temperatures, saying that their cold snap research indicates reefs face more than one threat from climate-related problems.

The findings of the University of Georgia study were published in the scientific journal Global Change Biology.