Stanford scientists here to map out resilient Ofu coral
The school children at Olosega Elementary School in the Manu’a Islands got a wonderful treat last month when coral researchers from Steve Palumbi's laboratory at Stanford University in Northern California paid them a visit.
The youngsters received a crash course on how to do scientific work, and experiments were conducted on the geology of the rocks and stones of Ofu and Olosega. In addition, the kids were also able to witness a demonstration of the new four-rotor helicopter that was used to map the reef.
Carlo Caruso, the National Park of American Samoa (NPAS) District Ranger for Manu’a told Samoa News via an email correspondence yesterday morning that “t___his group has been coming to Ofu, Manu'a for several years because the Ofu back reefs in the NPAS offer a natural laboratory for studying thermal tolerance in corals.”
Students from the Aeronautics Department at Stanford University are producing the world’s best coral reef map using the copter’s cameras. The copter was flown at the elementary school, where it snapped a photo of the students. The researchers are working with the American Samoa Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources and the US National Park of American Samoa to understand how and why some Samoan corals are so tough in the face of climate change.
Caruso reported that last month, during the group’s most recent visit to Manu’a, a team of 12 members travelled to Ofu—most of them Stanford affiliated. The recent trip was about a month long. “They have trips about twice a year, but not always so many people,” Caruso said. He said the group members spent most of one day at the school where they engaged in English conversation, coral experiments, and a demonstration of the quadcopter with the 5th to 8th graders.
According to Caruso, the quadcopter was part of a sub-project led by graduate student Ved Chirayath to make a really good image map of the Ofu lagoons where the scientists are working. These reefs are along the South coast of Ofu Island.
When asked to elaborate about the goal of "producing the world's best coral reef map" using the copter's camera, Caruso explained that the photographic technique is experimental and complicated, “but they basically take lots and lots of pictures over the reef and then a computer program analyzes them to remove distortion from waves and connect the pictures together into a huge visual map where you can see individual coral colonies.”
The copter used in this project was custom assembled by graduate student Trent Lukaczyk. It had a special camera mount that was computer controlled to always point in exactly the right direction.
Caruso said, “Dr. Palumbi's lab does a lot of work on understanding coral thermal tolerance, and they also study corals' response to changes in pH.” He explained that “Climate change is predicted to make ocean temperatures rise in the coming decades, and the pH to drop (causing the ocean to become more acidic). Both of these changes are not good for corals.”
So what exactly has the group discovered about Samoan corals and their toughness? Caruso responded that the Ofu back reefs have areas that get pretty warm when the tide is low and the sun is out. “They get warmer than most corals usually like. But the corals living there handle the higher temperatures because they are genetically predisposed to thermal tolerance and because they get used to it,” he said.
He continued, “After the tide comes in, the temperature goes back down. But what is interesting is that these corals seem to do OK when they are artificially shifted to higher temperatures and kept there.”
Caruso said that phenomenon is what ties the research to climate change. “As the oceans warm, we expect corals to do poorly, but here and there are some corals that seem like they are ready to handle slightly warmer water.”
This, according to Caruso, is what brings the researchers to Ofu.
“They want to understand these tough corals and see if there is any way to use what we know about these special corals to protect coral reefs around the world.”
For this particular project, the scientists will stay in Ofu, and visits to other island in the Manu’a group including Ta'u or Olosega are not scheduled. “Ta'u has a different kind of reef structure and lacks the back reef pools that warm up the way the ones on Ofu do,” Caruso explained.
Images collected by the mapping and photography project will all be available to the public on vedphoto.com. Some images are already posted, but it will take the researchers several more months to process and analyze all the data. As of press time, they had more than 2 terabytes of digital pictures. “The imaging project had the scientific purpose of mapping the reef so that scientists can correlate the position of certain coral colonies to other data like water temperature and pH,” Caruso said. “There was also an artistic element because they want to make image displays that show people the beauty of coral reefs.”
Caruso pointed out that the NPAS “supports this type of research as much as we can.” There is an NPS laboratory on Ofu that visiting researchers operate out of and local NPSA staff often act as field assistants to the scientists.
Additionally, NPS also has a sophisticated coral tank system built by NPAS staff members Ricky Misaalefua and Carlo Caruso that allows researchers to program water temperatures. According to Caruso, the researchers use these tanks to do experiments that involve heating up small coral samples. “We want to learn as much as we can about resources such as our coral reefs because we don't want to lose them to climate change or anything else,” he concluded.
The research group has funding from the Moore Foundation for their scientific research on Ofu, but the school outreach is coordinated by the NPAS “to bring the school kids into contact with college students and working scientists.”
See the Reactive Reefs project at http://www.vedphoto.com/reactive-reefs for more information.
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