Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Going "All In" for Science

by Kim Cobb

This spring, my lab will mortgage our scientific future to collect a once-in-a-lifetime dataset on the heels of the largest El Niño event on record. We'll document the effects of this climate extreme on coral reefs in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where peak El Nino-related coral bleaching and mortality took place. Or at least that's what we infer from the exceedingly warm temperatures relayed back to our screens from buoys near our research site.
Map of current coral bleaching alert, from NOAA's Coral Reef Watch, showing Christmas Island (center of blue circle) in Alert Level 2 status ("mortality likely", according to the legend on the web-page). 
In order to make this field expedition happen, myself and my collaborators are pooling what scant discretionary funding we can find into a collective pot of sorts. We hope that it will go far enough to ensure the participation of the key team members - each of whom brings irreplaceable expertise to the project.

You see, we've been working together as an interdisciplinary team of physical oceanographers (ocean circulation gurus), coral ecologists, climate modelers, and geochemists since August 2014, thanks to two RAPID grants from the National Science Foundation. We got one year of funding to study the effects of the 2014-2015 El Nino event on coral reefs at my long-term research site, Christmas Island. But wait, you're saying to yourself. There wasn't a large El Nino event in 2014/2015, was there?

Before (or while) you have a good chuckle at our expense, consider the following. For one, we were not alone in thinking that a major El Nino event was in the making during spring of 2014, when we submitted our proposals. And more importantly, our datasets ended up providing an incredibly rich dataset to document conditions before and during the birth of this year's record El Niño. In a way, we couldn't have planned it better - what good are experimental data on this El Nino without an appropriate baseline?

We approached the NSF with precisely this argument in early fall, 2015, as our RAPID funding was expiring, to seek an extension that would enable us to study what was shaping up to be a mega-El Niño. We were denied, on the grounds that it was time to let other research groups have a crack at an El Niño RAPID this winter. Fair enough, even though I find it scientifically short-sighted (totally unbiased opinion). Here is a list of El Niño RAPID awards made this winter.

Running on fumes, funding-wise, we sent a skeleton crew to Christmas Island in the November, 2015 to make some early observations of coral bleaching and mortality levels (summarized here). We also serviced environmental loggers that have been collecting data continuously from August 2014 until now, took hundreds of seawater and rainfall samples for geochemical analyses, and tagged coral colonies ranging from minor to 100% bleached, for follow-up tissue sampling, drilling, and geochemical analyses.
A partially bleached Porites colony tagged for future
analyses by our team in November, 2015.
It’s been over three months of scorching ocean temperatures since our last trip, and we know that a large majority of the island’s reefs are bleached, if not completely dead. But we won’t know the full extent of the damage unless we can get back out there. And this time, a skeleton screw will not suffice:  we need to systematically survey the reefs at Christmas, from the leeward to the windward side, from shallow to deep. We need to deploy multiple boats per day, filled with teams of science divers, to have a prayer of collecting the comprehensive data and samples we need to answer the big questions about El Nino, climate change, and coral reefs. The resulting data and samples will be analyzed from the perspective of coral genomics & physiology, trace metal and isotopic geochemistry, ocean mixing and circulation, and coral reef ecology. None of these investigations will be conducted in isolation, but rather in our team’s collaborative playground, pushing questions at the intersections between our disciplinary expertise.

So how can we afford to launch a major expedition with no funding? It’s simple really. We cannot afford not to. We could wait 20 more years for an event of this magnitude to open the door to our most ambitious scientific questions – questions that we have been pursuing as independent scientists for our entire careers. By putting our hearts, our heads, and our labs’ very modest pocketbooks on the line this spring, we are absolutely certain that we will deliver some fundamental new insights about the fate of coral reefs under climate change, and the role of climate change in fueling monster El Nino events.

What is happening to the corals reef at Christmas Island this winter is a tragedy. But the bigger tragedy would be to let it go completely undocumented, thus robbing future generations of ecologists and climate scientists of the data and samples they need to study this climate extreme, together with its long-term effects and implications. 

So, are you with us? If so, please consider supporting our spring expedition here. Any contribution brings a smile to our face and a bounce to our step. Thanks for valuing science.