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Waiting for El Nino on a remote Pacific reef

new england aquarium/pipa.neaq.org

On Sept. 1, a research boat departed from the island nation of Samoa bearing a team of scientists from the New England Aquarium and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The ship’s destination was the remote Phoenix Islands, an uninhabited archipelago spread over an area the size of California in the vast western Pacific.

It was the sixth such expedition led by the aquarium since the start of the century. The researchers keep coming back because when it comes to studying what coral reefs were like before humans came along, there is no better place on earth than the Phoenix Islands.

“Its remoteness has de facto protected it,” says Randi Rotjan, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium and director of this year’s trip. “Features of the planet where there are no people are rare and unusual.”

The trip to the islands, which belong to the Republic of Kiribati and were declared a protected area in 2008, took three-and-a-half days. Once there, the research team set to work (and also began posting to the expedition’s blog). One primary goal of the expedition is to create what Rotjan calls a “snapshot” of the ecosystems that thrive on an undisturbed reef, from the abundant tuna, manta rays, and sharks, to the coral community itself. Aquarium scientists are monitoring and capturing organisms on the reef, while researchers from Woods Hole take coral samples to establish the “deep-time” history of the reef.

Coral reefs, along with rain forests, are considered to be the most biodiverse habitats in the world. By understanding what a reef looks like in a pure state, the researchers anticipate being able to measure how human activity and climate change affect reef ecosystems. And it just so happens that a major climatological event is taking shape in the Pacific right now — what’s projected to be the strongest El Nino on record.

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“From fish down to corals, this is an interesting opportunity to think about what El Nino does to the western Pacific,” says Colin Orians, director of the environmental studies program at Tufts University.

Rotjan says she hopes the data collected this fall will provide insight into the vulnerability of reefs to climate change — and also their resilience, or ability to bounce back, from environmental damage. That knowledge is still some time off, though. The research team returns to port at the end of September. Many months and years of data crunching await them when they do.

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Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.

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