Author: Erin O'Reilly
A graveyard of white coral skeletons. Not the desired phrase to describe the underwater rainforests of coral reefs, but this is the image encountered by a dive team at Jarvis Island in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Upon resurfacing, lead coral ecologist Dr. Bernardo Vargas-Ángel shared his shock regarding the condition of the reef he witnessed. The underwater garden he experienced just a year before was obliterated. 95% of the reef was composed of the white skeletal remains of a once thriving reef.
How does a vibrant underwater zoo become a boneyard of white, lifeless coral? With rising ocean temperatures and acidity, corals are stressed and expel the algae contained in their tissues. This devastating phenomenon is known as coral bleaching. Instead of reefs being a colorful living mosaic of yellows, purples, oranges, greens, and pinks, now all that remains are their white skeletons. For corals, a colorful reef is equivalent to a healthy reef. Not only do the algae provide the unique coloring, but they also serve as a major food source for the corals. Without the algae, corals are no longer able to be the colorful underwater rainforests full of life they once were.
Corals have become the 21st century’s canary in a coal mine: a warning to humans about the dangers of climate change. Oceans absorb roughly one-third of the carbon dioxide we emit, increasing ocean temperature and acidity. Bleached coral reefs serve as the first sign of the many negative effects to come from climate change. If even remote and pristine areas are being affected by climate change, then other less protected ecosystems are surely in even worse condition.
Corals are sensitive to slight changes in ocean temperature. A mere 1˚C increase in the warmest temperature causes corals to bleach. Due to this seemingly small shift, the world’s oceans could lose their underwater rainforests and instead be left with coral graveyards. While sensitive, corals can usually survive short periods of warmer water. However, the 2015-2016 El Niño made the waters in the remote Pacific too warm, for too long. The water was 4˚C above normal for an extended period of time, which proved too much for the corals to endure. Instead a bath, the corals were now trying to survive in a jacuzzi.
The Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument serves as a living laboratory to study how climate change effects coral reefs worldwide. Since most of the islands within the Monument are uninhabited, they allow scientists like Bernardo to study the effects of climate change in an area with little direct human impact. If even these corals are bleaching, climate change is mostly likely the cause. Not only will the effects of climate change be studied, but also the ability of corals to recover from such a devastating event. Hopefully we will witness Jarvis’ transition from a coral graveyard back to the healthy underwater rainforest it once was.
Author: Kara Koenig
Friday June 17th, 6am. The girls and I were wide-awake and ready to go for our first day of work at NOAA’s Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center (IRC). The morning started off a bit slow, as we needed to acquire our IDs in order to gain access onto Ford Island military base, where the IRC is located. The IRC building itself is stunning; within the building there is a significant historical relevance well preserved from the WWII era. The building itself was constructed around two WWII era aircraft hangers, and is also LEED certified. The building's atrium is like a museum and certainly creates an inspirational setting to work in.
The rest of our first day involved settling into our individual office spaces, and meeting numerous NOAA employees in our division of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) including our team leads. Over the summer and continuing on into next year each group member was assigned to a specific team under PIFSC’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (CREP). I personally am on the Ocean Acidification and Climate Change (OCC) team, and the other main teams include the Benthic, Fish, and Ecospatial Information teams. It was thrilling to finally meet these individuals in person who we have been in contact with over the phone since April!
After our first day at work, we mastered the public transit bus system home, which we now take to and from work every day. Our first weekend primarily involved unpacking and settling into our apartments, so we were ready to go for our first full week at work. Coming into our first week was slightly abnormal because most of the employees in our division were attending and/or presenting at the International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) being held in downtown Honolulu, how amazing! Shannon was fortunate enough to attend the conference for three days last week, and she will go into further detail about that in the next blog. Last week we had numerous meetings with the Pacific Islands Regional Office (PIRO) to discuss all matters related to the marine national monuments they manage in the Pacific, the structure of PIRO, and the management plan that will be created for the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
Following our first full week, we thought it was the perfect time to finally explore the island. Shannon went up to the North Shore with some friends she knew from previous research experience who were in town for ICRS. Meanwhile, Monique, Erin, and I visited the beautiful windward beach town of Kailua! While in Kailua the girls and I hiked up to the Lanikai Pillboxes and the views were absolutely breathtaking. Having a bird’s eye view of the corals off Lanikai Beach was a site I’ll never forget.
Now almost through our second week of work, we are moving full speed ahead! The girls and I are progressing in terms of data analysis for each of our teams and have a great grasp of what our objectives are. We cannot wait to see how the summer unfolds, and look forward to working hard during the week and enjoying all of our time to the fullest on the gorgeous island of Oahu!