Folks who do not live near coral reefs are nevertheless familiar with them, thanks to documentaries and computer screensavers showcasing how they come in every color of the rainbow.
To learn more about these colorful bricks of marine ecology, a team of UCSB researchers will dive into the waters surrounding the French Polynesian island of Mo’orea next month.
“A tropical coral reef is this vibrant, beautiful hotspot of biodiversity, rich with colorful animal life,” said Holly Moeller, one of the researchers.
As colorful as they are, coral reefs behave similarly to humans when under stress. Just like a human would, stressed out coral reefs turn pale and white. Scientists call this bleaching, and Dr. Moeller — whose biology and chemistry degrees were awarded by Rutgers University, MIT and Stanford — explained what exactly happens when coral reefs turn white.
“There’s algae that lives inside of the coral tissue,” said Dr. Moeller, describing the algae and the coral’s relationship as mutual. This symbiotic algae is “kicked out when the water drops temperature,” which drains the coral of its famous color.
In addition to temperature, other factors affecting coral stress levels include nutrients, light and pollution.
Earlier this year, a study by Florida Atlantic University Brian Lapointe showed that contamination (a high nitrogen level) was killing off the Florida Reef, the third largest in the world.
For Dr. Moeller though, temperature may be a factor weighing more heavily than the others.
“The reason that bleaching has become intense in recent years is because of warmer temperatures,” she told the News-Press.
And it is indeed temperature that is wiping out the world’s largest coral reef system — Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. After a 2016 heatwave, large portions of the reef bleached and died.
Mass bleaching of coral reefs, for Dr. Moeller, serves as visual signs that temperatures are rising.
“What makes working on coral reefs compelling is that we can actually see the effects,” said Dr. Moeller.
She and others who are conducting studies on coral reefs view themselves as the front liners attempting to address issues before they happen.
With the Mo’orea project, Dr. Moeller and her colleagues aim to attain a predictive understanding of coral reef systems in order to curtail such mass bleaching.
“I think our project sits right in the mix of a number of great researchers doing really important work on what the potential adaptations of corals to a future ocean may be,” Dr. Moeller said. “And with this detailed understanding, we’ll be better equipped to understand reefs elsewhere, and even extend the knowledge to other systems.”
To tackle this task, Dr. Moeller — who will be handling the mathematical side of the research project — and fellow UCSB ecologist Roger Nisbet’s team boasts researchers from across the nation: University of Rhode Island, the University of Washington, Florida International University and Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. The National Science Foundation will fund this five-year collaborative research with $3 million.