September 20, 2004 Vol. IX, No. 3

Northridge and UCSB scientists will study coral reefs in French Polynesia with a $4.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Northridge, UCSB Awarded $4.6 Million for Coral Reef Study

Marine Biologists Peter Edmunds, Robert Carpenter to Study Threatened Reef Ecosystems Near Tahiti

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has selected Cal State Northridge and UC Santa Barbara as the joint recipients of an "unprecedented" $4.6 million, six-year grant to establish a long-term project studying the coral reefs of French Polynesia, an effort expected to add volumes to scientific understanding of ominous changes in global coral reef communities.

CSUN marine biologists Peter Edmunds and Robert Carpenter, working with two other principal investigators from UC Santa Barbara, will conduct research centered at the University of California's field laboratory on the north shore of Moorea, located west of Tahiti in the Windward group of French Polynesia's Society Islands.

Research at the Moorea site will help scientists better understand coral reef processes affecting the reef ecosystem, the nature of animal and plant community structure and diversity in the famously colorful coral reefs, and the factors that determine the abundance and dynamics of related oceanic populations.

"This understanding," said Phil Taylor, director of NSF's biological oceanography program, "will allow us to make more accurate predictions of how coral reef ecosystems respond to environmental change, whether human-induced or from natural cycles."

Among the oldest and most diverse of the earth's ecosystems, coral reefs provide natural storm barriers for homes and beaches, habitat for more species per unit than any other of the planet's marine environments, commercial fisheries, tourism and recreation jobs. Often called the "medicine cabinets of the 21st century," the reefs' plants and animals are important sources of new medicines.

The Northridge/UCSB project represents the first and only coral reef Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site among the 26 supported by the federal government. Designed to compare organic productivity and diversity among terrestrial, aquatic and marine systems, NSF's LTER network previously included an Antarctic project as its only other marine site.

NSF's grant is of "unprecedented magnitude" for research in coral reef biology, said Edmunds(right), who added that the only other LTER project funded by the organization in the latest round of grants was a proposal from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

To Edmund's mind, the grant could not have come at a more critical time. "Coral reefs are facing a profound threat in the next 10 years or more, in terms of global climate change," he said.

Climate changes are warming sea water at a relatively fast rate, resulting in two kinds of events. "One is conspicuous and striking," Edmunds said. "Corals are dying by ‘bleaching,' that is, turning white. They die if they remain white for several weeks at a time." This calamity already has killed many hundreds of square miles of coral reefs in both Pacific and Caribbean waters.

"The second is more subtle," he continued. "The changes in this kind of event are slow, such as diseases that begin to take small numbers of corals every year, year in and year out."

Sewage and pesticides form an unholy alliance with gradual changes in water temperature, possibly affecting the corals' ability to reproduce. Both kinds of events may presage the slow death of an entire ecosystem unless enough is learned to turn that tide.

Carpenter(right) and Edmunds are well qualified to take on the challenge, with more than 40 years of combined experience in field research under their belts at sites as far-flung as Key Largo, the Australian Great Barrier Reef, the kelp forests off Santa Catalina Island, and in Hawaii, where Carpenter currently is engaged in a project investigating the effects of water flow on the island's reefs.

An intense planning period for the Northridge/UCSB teams will get underway this fall, but the real work for Carpenter and Edmunds will begin during field trips to Moorea in spring 2005.

A reconnaissance trip to the area is planned for January 2005, and most of the project's first year objectives will be set up during a six-week sojourn in April or May. The bulk of the resources for the project already is in place, including laboratory space, living accommodations and water access.

Edmunds will be responsible for the direct study of stony corals, described by NSF's Taylor as "the foundation upon which tens of thousands of other species rely." He will determine how much of the ocean bottom the corals cover, and how such coverage changes over a ten-year time scale. Most importantly, he will work to illuminate the mechanism of the changes.

Carpenter will focus on the role of oceanic currents and water flow, coral reef metabolism, the health of the ecosystem, the interaction of water flow with the reefs and the dynamics of coral reef production.

The UCSB marine biologists--Sally Holbrook and Russell Schmitt--are eminent fish ecologists, with interests primarily in the abundance and dynamics of reef fish populations.

"What distinguishes this project from superficially similar projects around the world," said Edmunds, "is that they are able to record change, but we have the financial support to go beyond that to address the mechanism and process of change as well.

"It is a very, very big deal," Edmunds said, adding that NSF's sizable investment comes with high expectations for what the scientists will deliver. "Part of it is that we will foster research by colleagues and other scientists who will come to the Moorea site, write their own grants and attract new resources and expertise."

The CSUN Biology Department's well-established and productive record of marine biology research, Edmunds noted, was a probable "tipping factor" in the final selection. The UCSB/Northridge winning proposal also integrates CSUN minority students into the research environment, enabling them potentially to progress through the university's master degree program and on to doctoral programs at UCSB.

Biology graduate students Robin Elahi and Mairead Maheigan will be part of the Northridge research team, with additional students to be recruited over the years.

Born and brought up in the south of England, Edmunds had yearned to be a marine biologist since he was small, following the undersea adventures of his idol, ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. However, he could easily be spending his days "studying barnacles in Scotland" instead of working in the azure waters off Moorea's white and black sand beaches, but for a charismatic coral biologist on the faculty of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

"She changed my life," Edmunds said. The professor introduced him to field work in the coral reef environment and "chaperoned" his entrance into Glasgow University's doctoral program.

Carpenter also traveled far to reach the open water. A native of Michigan, he graduated from the University of Michigan with a zoology degree and became captivated by coral reefs during his master's degree studies on St. Croix. A doctoral degree from the University of Georgia was followed by post-doctoral work at the Smithsonian Institution

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