BIOS publishes new study on coral reefs

Photo credit: A. Andersson

Photo credit: A. Andersson

A new study published by the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences has linked global ocean processes with local coral reef chemistry.

Data collected on reefs and offshore in Bermuda over a five-year period shows that coral reef chemistry — and perhaps the future success of corals — is tied not only to the human carbon emissions causing systematic ocean acidification, but also to seasonal and decadal cycles in the open waters of the Atlantic, and the balance of biochemical processes in the coral reef community.

“We think whatever happens on the reef reflects larger oceanographic and climatic forcing,” said Andreas Andersson, BIOS adjunct faculty and professor at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. “If we want to understand how ocean acidification will affect coral reefs in the future, we have to understand what’s happening now.”

In a study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS) researchers documented two periods of intensified ocean acidification on the reef that coincided with major blooms of microscopic plankton measured offshore.

As currents deliver the plankton and detritus to the reef, corals capture and consume it with their tiny stinging tentacles. This new source of energy is invested in growth through calcification, which removes skeleton-building minerals from the water to grow the reef structure, and respiration, which produces carbon dioxide that acidifies seawater. These processes exacerbate ocean acidification on the reef.

Scientists collected the offshore information from the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study (BATS), which has provided the world’s longest and clearest record of ocean acidification resulting from rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and has generated concern for the future of coral reefs around the world.

However, as illustrated by the study, coral reefs do not just passively experience the pH of the ocean washing in with each tide. As corals grow, their own biological processes such as photosynthesis, respiration, and calcification impact the water’s chemistry. Depending on the balance of biological processes, coral reefs can actually exacerbate or alleviate the acidification of the reef seawater, Dr Andersson said.

He worked on the project with Scripps graduate student Kiley Yeakel and a team of BIOS researchers led by senior scientist Nicholas Bates.

While the strong acidification events on the reef corresponded to times of higher open-ocean mixing and phytoplankton blooms measured at BATS, these open ocean events, in turn, have been related to the North Atlantic Oscillation.

Similar to El Niño in the Pacific, the North Atlantic Oscillation is a periodic back-and-forth shifting of atmospheric pressure differences across the North Atlantic.

By monitoring the reef water for several years, the team was able to relate this large-scale process observed at BATS to conditions for coral reefs.

The Royal Gazette, 16 November 2015. Article.


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