University of Mississippi scientists to study coral community responses to ocean acidification

Key Largo, FL – Ocean acidification is a response to increased uptake of carbon dioxide by seawater that results in lowered pH levels and, consequently, stress to marine ecosystems. Current estimates indicate that since the Industrial Revolution, the oceans have seen a 30 percent increase in acidity associated with a 0.1 pH unit decline. Moreover, oceanographic models, which utilize greenhouse gas emission data, suggest that pH will drop an additional 0.3 to 0.5 pH units by the year 2100. Already threatened coral reefs are particularly susceptible to acidification since many of the animals living on these reefs, including the corals themselves, are unable to precipitate the calcium that makes up their shells and skeletons under acidic conditions.

In addition to these global changes, certain micro-habitats within coral reef ecosystems may already experience slightly acidic conditions due to a build-up of metabolic carbon dioxide from reef animals. A scientific team lead by marine biologists from the University of Mississippi will examine adaptations to ocean acidification from July 12-21, 2011, using the undersea habitat Aquarius. This unique research laboratory is located on Conch Reef, 10 miles offshore from Key Largo FL, at a depth of 50 feet. Scientists live in the habitat for 10 days giving them unparalleled access to their study their site around-the-clock. The team will collect fundamental information about these micro-habitats and will map acidification levels throughout Conch Reef. They will collect samples from individual sponges and corals that tolerate acidic conditions and look at gene regulation patterns to better understand why some individuals are resistant to acidification and others are detrimentally impacted. Ultimately this research will help coral reef managers predict changes in the reef community structure and function, and potentially develop mitigation strategies in advance of future acidification stress.

The team leader, Dr. Marc Slattery, and Dr. John Rimoldi, recently created a novel pH sensor that is about the size of a cigarette. These devices represent a significant advancement for coral reef acidification monitoring that currently relies on moored instruments the size of a waste basket and weighing more than 25lbs. The new sensors can measure the acidity around individual corals and sponges. This scale-relevant data is crucial as marine biologists try to understand the landscape patterns of stressed and resistant individuals on coral reefs. As an aquanaut in Aquarius, along with doctoral students Cole Easson and Cara Fiore, Slattery will be able to field-test the sensors for temporal and spatial accuracy that is critical for future development of this unique tool.

To work underwater at depths of about 100 feet for up to 9 hours, the scientists conduct saturation diving from the Aquarius habitat. In preparation for their mission, the aquanauts undergo rigorous underwater training so they are prepared for any eventualities that might occur in the habitat or on the reef. While the scientific opportunities are extensive, divers are committed to the underwater world and this training is critical to the safety and success of the mission. Since the divers cannot ascend directly to the surface, they are supported by a multi-institutional scientific team lead by Dr. Deborah Gochfeld and her colleagues. They operate from the Aquarius shore base in Key Largo, and shuttle equipment and samples to the aquanauts at depth via dive boats.

The Aquarius undersea laboratory is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and operated by UNCW’s Aquarius Reef Base program. Follow the mission online at http://aquarius.uncw.edu where you will find live video feeds, pictures and aquanaut journals. Viewers may also join in the Aquarius team for live broadcasts of habitat technician dives beginning Wednesday, July 13th and continuing through Tuesday, July 19th. Broadcasts are planned from 7 pm to 9 pm each evening and can be viewed at http://www.ustream.tv/aquariusreefbase. Broadcasts involve Aquarius technicians working outside Aquarius performing maintenance work and taking question from viewers.

Contact information
Name: Thomas Potts
Tel: (910) 620.6933
pottst@uncw.edu

Aquarius Reef Base press release. Web site.


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