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Rapid response coral reef research: the new norm for a changing climate?

By Amy Apprill

Associate Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Scientist in Residence at the Mystic Aquarium

As a research-focused marine scientist, a significant perk of my job is that I get to decide what projects and opportunities that my laboratory will investigate. Most often this begins with me writing a 50+ page research proposal to a government funding agency (generally entailing multiple iterations of the idea, some procrastination, and much work trying to trim my budget to fit within the desired window). Sometimes I have to wait up to six months on the verdict on whether the project will be funded. This process is often repeated, sometimes several times, before the idea is funded, but that is pretty typical for this competitive process.

Recently, the urgency of problems in the marine environment has sped up this entire process. The idea or need for research does not need vetting but is rather starkly clear from the start. And there are some – although not enough –  mechanisms to fund these ideas that operate on more rapid timescales than the mainstream process. With this support, my team is able to act quickly and respond to the disasters occurring in our oceans and provide new scientific knowledge about ocean problems.

Over the last few years, my laboratory has responded to several disaster type scenarios in coral reef environments. Coral reefs are one of the most biodiverse and productive ecosystem in the ocean, which provide over $30 billion per year in fisheries resources and shoreline protection to humans.  Unfortunately, coral reefs are also one of the most sensitive ocean ecosystem to global warming as well as to other impacts of climate change and human development.

My first dive into the rapid response research occurred in 2014 when the coral reefs of Hawaii underwent a severe episode of coral bleaching.  Coral bleaching is a phenomena that occurs when the seawater temperature rises and the reef-building corals (the animals) lose the symbiotic microalgae that populate their tissues.  This bleaching leaves the corals as a stark white color (hence the ‘bleaching’ label) but it also leaves the coral without a significant source of nutrition that they normally receive form the photosynthesizing algae.

Our research in Hawaii sought to examine if one of the chemicals thought to be associated with coral bleaching could be detected in the seawater during a bleaching event.  My colleague Colleen Hansel, a talented marine chemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), had just adapted a new instrument for ocean measurements of the bleaching-implicated molecule.  When Colleen and I learned of the coral bleaching, it presented us with an opportunity to test her instrument in a natural setting.  We initially booked the entire research trip on our credit card, and then were later successful securing funding from an anonymous donor.  Our trip was successful – we were able to use Colleen’s instrument to directly measure coral-produced reactive oxygen species for the first time on a reef.  We showed that these chemicals were not different between pigmented and bleached corals, which has opened up new questions about these chemicals and their potential role in the health of corals.

Over two weeks in 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria wreaked havoc on the US Virgin Islands (USVI).  My team along with WHOI collaborators Aran Mooney and Joel Llopiz had been studying the coral reefs of St. John, USVI for several years, and thus we had a unique opportunity to assess the impact of the two category 5 hurricanes on the reefs. Our team was awarded rapid response research support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and our colleagues from other US institutions provided us berths on a research vessel that was to be offshore of St. John. The research vessel support was critical, as there were no functioning accommodations or even electricity available on the popular resort island. Our team then set to work recovering equipment moored on the reefs and conducting the most extensive suite of measurements that have ever been compared prior to and following two major and sequential hurricanes. Our analyses on the project are still underway, largely due to the complex nature of the data.

Just this year, my laboratory has responded to a coral disease outbreak impacting the Florida reef tract and other reefs within the Caribbean. The Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD pronounced ‘skittle-D’) causes lesions and tissue loss in about a third of the Caribbean reef-building species of coral, spreads rapidly within and throughout reefs, and leads to coral death.  The disease began near Miami in 2014, and has spread down to the Florida Keys reefs. Just last month, our team joined an OceanX and Bloomberg Philanthropies sponsored research cruise along with colleagues at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Mote Marine Laboratory. Our goal was to take the ‘vital signs’, or a comprehensive assessment, of the Florida reefs impacted by this disease.  Our team studied 85 reef sites in two weeks. This was an unprecedented survey timeline that was made possible by the support of the Alucia vessel, one of the few research vessels outfitted for SCUBA operations.

Unfortunately, the coral disease spread to St. Thomas, USVI in late January of this year. My lab alongside University of Virgin Islands and other collaborators are investigating the pathogens  involved in this disease.  This project is supported by rapid response research funding from the NSF. Additionally, my laboratory is excited about a new project sponsored by The Tiffany & Co. Foundation.  We are working to develop a rapid DNA sequencing approach that we can take to a field site and detect pathogens associated with coral and other marine diseases.  As marine diseases are expected to increase in abundance, frequency and duration alongside our warming oceans, this approach will greatly help us to identify pathogens and develop treatment and management plans in a more timely manner.

Due to the rapid timeframes of research planning and execution, taking on these rapid response research projects is often very stressful. These projects require coordination of field logistics, personnel, equipment and supplies, and often this occurs while my colleagues and I are scrambling to secure research funding.  We are relieved when a verbal funding commitment is made, and that becomes our much needed green light or ‘go time’ for our plans. Much like a medical first responder, I feel it is my duty to apply my research skills to these disasters impacting our coral reef ecosystems.  I am also training graduate and undergraduate students in how to perform rapid response research.  As the impacts of climate change on our marine environment become more prominent and problematic, these rapid response-type research projects may be the new norm, or future, for ocean research.

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