Why is your current research important for the rest of the world?
Again, a question I’m often faced with… especially when speaking with my landlocked friends and family members! Coral reefs are known as “marine rainforests,” because they house about 25% of marine biodiversity in less than 0.1% of the surface area of the ocean. That’s a lot of life that depends upon a disproportionately small amount of space. Unfortunately, due to the combined impacts of human-influenced sea-surface warming, ocean acidification, and coastal runoff, this 0.1% is getting smaller and smaller, with some models estimating that all reefs around the world will be in a state of net dissolution by 2100. This threat of dissolution could translate to habitat loss for a plethora of marine organisms and subsequent social and economic impacts on fishery-dependent small island nations and communities. My research contributes to our understanding of the ecosystem-level interactions that may govern how environmental stressors actually manifest themselves on reefs. I am attempting to develop leading indicators of calcification, dissolution, and productivity to identify early signs of transitions, quantify the rates of the shifts where they occur, and help manage the impacts of changing ocean conditions on the Earth’s natural marine rainforests.
While you were working on Teti’aroa, you had a remarkable surprise visit. Can you tell us a bit about that?
During our March 2017 field campaign on Teti’aroa, our lab group had an opportunity to share a bit of our research with a vacationing former President Barack Obama! Talk about a wonderful experience to have as a graduate student. The highlight of the visit was the former president’s knowledge of ocean acidification and its impacts on marine organisms. In one exchange, my doctoral advisor explained the goals of some of our research on Teti’aroa and why it is an ideal site for such investigations on reefs, and the former president responded by juxtaposing our research with previous studies he had read on the impact of natural volcanic CO2 on marine life in the Mediterranean Sea. Of course, we were collectively astounded, but it was a moment of great reflection and appreciation, as it reminded us that our research on corals has a tangible impact on the world and, when communicated properly, can leave a meaningful mark on the public… even at the highest levels of government.