Effects of coral reefs studied

Environmentalists study climate change on Grand Cayman.

The Central Caribbean Marine Institute hosted Think Tank number 5 – “A Strategic Planning Session for Ocean Acidification Research” earlier this month.

Scientists from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean offices, and from the US Geological Survey, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, University of South Florida, University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the University of Queensland, Australia, and the Cayman Islands Department of Environment attended the workshop.

In total, 18 experts worked together to better understand and constrain the effect of climate change and specifically ocean acidification on coral reefs. Funding for the workshop was provided through NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program.

The primary objective was to develop a coordinated effort to understand how the current increases in carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere are affecting coral reefs.

CCMI is partnering with NOAA’s Coral Health and Monitoring Program in the project called Integrated Coral Observing Network (ICON) and the together in 2008 they will invest over $250,000 in installing monitoring equipment in the Cayman Islands so that the reefs around Cayman can be part of the global effort to preserve coral reefs.

Dr Kim Yates (US Geological Survey) who attended the workshop describes the process as follows:

Coral reefs produce structures that develop “over thousands of years as individual corals form skeletons made from calcium carbonate minerals. This process is known as calcification.

Calcifying corals are the essential building blocks of coral reef structure and enable the reef to keep up with sea level rise. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an atmospheric gas without which the Earth could not regulate its temperature, plants could not photosynthesize and ocean chemistry would be vastly different.

Over the last century, fossil fuel consumption, deforestation, and an increase in other CO2 sources have raised the current level of atmospheric CO2 to approximately 380ppm, and it is rising at a record rate. As this increased atmospheric CO2 equilibrates with seawater, dissolved CO2 levels in the ocean will increase the concentration of naturally occurring acid called carbonic acid.

This process is called ocean acidification and can lead to dissolution of sediments made from calcium carbonate, potential loss of reef structure, and decreased coral calcification rates. This year, the USGS received funding from their Coastal and Marine Geology program for a project on the “Effects of Ocean Acidification on Coral Reefs” and they hope to develop predictive capabilities that will help scientists and resource managers better understand the potential risks to our reefs.

Dr Mark Eakin from NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch said: “Our coral reefs provide important services from coastal protection to fish to billions of dollars in tourism every year. We need to protect these valuable resources. To do that we need more information on how climate change and ocean acidification are influencing coral reefs. To protect coral reefs will require international and individual action to reduce our CO2 emissions into the atmosphere and will require local actions to reduce stress from humans. This workshop in the Cayman Islands identified steps needed to gather information to understand and then alleviate the problems of ocean acidification on reefs.”

The workshop was the first project under the CCMI theme of ‘Climate Change and Coral Reef Stress.’

“CCMI is working to better understand what is causing the decline in the health of our reefs and what could contribute to a more resilient reef. Our goal is to establish the best protective strategies and to promote realistic solutions that will reduce the major threats by humans, so that reefs may be more resilient to the stresses caused by global warming and climate change.

“We also recognize that it is essential to communicate the knowledge we have gained to public and private entities in order to help make the changes that will reduce the reef’s decline. We have established a goal to become the Center of Excellence for Climate Change and Coral Reef Stress,” indicated Dr Carrie Manfrino, President and Director of Research at CCMI.

“What was most encouraging was that the group reached consensus that funding and research should be focused on a few sites where NOAA ICON stations are being installed. We agreed that Little Cayman’s reefs provide a unique opportunity to study an isolated reef that has had relatively low impact by human development.

“The Cayman Islands will be one of four international sites that will have a suite of oceanographic and meteorology instruments to closely monitor our reefs and environment.

“This ICON project will bring the Cayman Islands into the arena for important research that we hope will also provide new funding for research at CCMI. We are grateful for the support of Stuarts Walkers and Hersant on this important initiative and we will be seeking new corporate partners to help in our efforts to sustain the biodiversity of our reefs.”

Cayman Net News Online, 18 December 2007. Article.

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