Understanding how the world’s oceans are being affected by changes in climate is a global scientific priority. In the Cayman Islands, the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI) is teaming up with the Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd’s Ocean Fund, the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation and the Image Group to establish a unique reference site where the relationships between climate change and coral reef stress can be measured directly.  The project is being headed up by CCMI’s Director of Research and Conservation Dr. Carrie Manfrino, Associate Professor of Oceanography at Kean University.

Scientific models indicate that rising temperatures and sea levels, increasing storm intensity and changes in the ocean’s chemistry will stress coral reefs beyond sustainability.  In the shallowest most productive part of the ocean, measurable increases in the concentration of carbon dioxide are expected to interrupt important biological processes that build the skeletons of myriad marine plants and animals.  These chemical reactions are changing the pH of the water and the resulting ocean acidification is one of the greatest threats to marine life yet encountered in the history of our planet.

The delicate skeletons of corals, plankton, and even marine algae are made of calcium carbonate. Corals provide the architectural structure for reefs and create the intricate labyrinth that is home to the highest biological diversity in the ocean.  Just as it would be impossible to build a house without a framework, a reef relies on corals for it structure.

Laboratory and controlled experiments show that these changes in the ocean’s chemistry reduce the capability of  marine organisms to maintain and produce their skeletons. These predictions need to be tested at a relatively healthy open ocean coral reef site. The outcome of our work will be to improve the quality of information that is available about the risks that changing climate presents to communities that rely on healthy coral reefs.

The Central Caribbean Marine Institute’s field station on Little Cayman maintains the region’s only permanently moored oceanographic monitoring station – the Coral Reef Early Warning System (CREWS), is an instrument conceived by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to continuously measure ocean conditions.  Newly designed instruments to measure ocean acidification will be installed on the CREWS and ecological experiments, designed to test whether corals are capable of regenerating, will be conducted.  The flat, pure limestone nature of Little Cayman; the extraordinarily low human population (< 200); plus well-developed coral reefs surrounding this isolated oceanic island make this an exceptional site for this study.  This project will establish a much needed long-term record of the fluctuations in ocean chemistry at CCMI’s Little Cayman site.

Studies of the primary structural organisms on reefs including the juvenile coral community will evaluate the level of stress using such indicators as reduced growth rates, changes in the density of skeletons, coral bleaching and declines in recruitment and survival of juvenile corals.

The data collected will gain an insight into the immediate effects of the changes on coral and will help reef managers understand these threats so that they can more effectively conserve coral reefs and their associated flora and fauna.

The communication of the findings of the studies to the general public and young students enrolled in CCMI’s many education programs is of paramount importance.  By disseminating the information we will provide a wider understanding of this critical issue and how to manage it into the future.  The CCMI research facility at Little Cayman and the partnership with RCCL’s Ocean Fund, The Image Group and The Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation provide an opportunity to achieve these goals.

 

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