It can be hard to stay upbeat as a marine biologist, especially with the onslaught of existential threats like climate change facing the planet. Coral reefs are arguably the ecosystem that stands to lose the most with respect to climate change, namely because the resident organisms are highly sensitive to elevated temperatures. Furthermore, the limestone-based reef framework itself is diminishing before our eyes due to the accompanying rise in carbon dioxide levels (which decreases oceanic pH, leading to ocean acidification). That being said, there are corals out there that display resilience, continuing to thrive in habitats that would appear decidedly marginalized to even the untrained eye.
Coral scientists at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) and the University of Miami Rosenstiel School’s Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies (CIMAS) will be presenting their research at the 14th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) from July 19-23, 2021, which will be held virtually for the first time in the history of the ICRS.
AOML coral ecologist, Ian Enochs, was recently awarded with the Department of Commerce Silver Medal Award for his leadership in developing and implementing the Sub-Surface Automated Sampler (SAS). The DOC Silver Medal is awarded to federal employees for exceptional performance characterized by noteworthy contributions which have a direct and lasting impact.
NOAA contributed to a study published today in the journal Nature that compares the upward growth rates of coral reefs with predicted rates of sea-level rise and found many reefs would be submerged in water so deep it will hamper their growth and survival. The study was done by an international team of scientists led by the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.
A recent study by AOML and partners identified coral communities at Cheeca Rocks in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary that appear to be more resilient than other nearby reefs to coral bleaching after back to back record breaking hot summers in 2014 and 2015 and increasingly warmer waters. This local case study provides a small, tempered degree of optimism that some Caribbean coral communities may be able to acclimate to warming waters.
Coral researchers at AOML unveiled a new state of the art experimental laboratory this spring at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel campus. The new “Experimental Reef Laboratory” will allow NOAA scientists and colleagues to study the molecular mechanisms of coral resiliency. Modeling studies indicate that thermal stress and ocean acidification will worsen in the coming decades. Scientists designed the Experimental Reef Laboratory to study the combined effect of these two threats, and determine if some corals are able to persist in a changing environment.
Coral scientists recently traveled to the Galapagos Islands to document coral reef health following the 2016-17 El Niño Southern Oscillation event (ENSO), which bathed the region in abnormally warm waters. Historically, these events have triggered coral bleaching and large-scale mortality, as seen in response to ENSO events of 1982-83 and 1997-98. Interestingly, these same reefs exhibited minimal bleaching in response to this most recent event. Scientists are determining whether this response is due to differing levels of heat stress, or an increased tolerance to warm water in the remnant coral communities.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, measured changes in the reef framework in several naturally high-carbon dioxide settings near Papua New Guinea. For the first time, scientists found increased activity of worms and other organisms that bore into the reef structure, resulting in a net loss of the framework that is the foundation of coral reef ecosystems.
For the third time in recorded history, a massive coral bleaching event is unfolding throughout the world’s oceans, stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Caribbean. Above average sea surface temperatures exacerbated by a strong El Niño could result in the planet losing up to 4,500 square miles of coral this year alone, according to NOAA. The global event is predicted to continue to impact reefs into the spring of 2016.
Maug is a unique natural laboratory that allows us to study how ocean acidification affects coral reef ecosystems. We know of no other area like this in U.S. waters. Increasing carbon dioxide in seawater is a global issue because it makes it harder for animals like corals to build skeletons.